For the third Saturday in a row, Israelis walked the streets in several major cities in one of the biggest waves of protests in decades in the country. People rallied to protest against the increasing cost of living.
According to Israeli media 300,000 protesters demonstrated in the streets on Saturday night, with 200,000 people protesting in Tel Aviv (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk) and 30,000 in Jerusalem.
Last weekend an estimated crowd of 150,000 people gathered in a similar protest. This Saturday was viewed by many observers as a test to see whether this movement was gaining strength or running out of steam.
Protesters were waving flags, beating drums and chanting : “The people demand social justice”. Some also held signs reading, “People before profits”, “Rent is not a luxury” and “Israel is too dear”.
The movement started in mid-July when people set up a few tents in an expensive part of central Tel Aviv in order to protest against real estate prices. Since then tent encampments have appeared in other city centres.
“This started out as a housing crisis when a young woman was evicted from her flat when she couldn’t afford her rent,” Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, told Al Jazeera. “But it’s ballooned and encompasses much more than that now.”
“There was planned privatisation of what was once a socialist economy, and there weren’t adequate plans to bring along the middle classes and lower-middle classes, as a new wealthy class arose in Israel.”
Series of reforms
Over the weeks many groups joined the movement, which is now about a wide range of economic issues.
And the protest leaders have expressed their demands in a list which includes affordable housing, reduction of high Value Added Tax rates, free day care for children, increased salaries for health care workers and other social benefits.
Last week polls release showed that while support for the protesters is very high, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval ratings have dropped.
Therefore Israeli PM has announced a series of reforms, including offering tax breaks and freeing up land for construction.
“The prime minister believes strongly that [protesters’] claims are valid, that we have artificially high prices that are there predominantly because of monopolistic practice and cartels,” said Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman.
“The government hopes to push through a series of reforms that will bring down the prices that Israeli consumers pay.”
However so far the reforms increased the protesters’ anger as they said the measures would have no real affect on them.
“We are going to keep protesting, we want solutions, we want real willingness by the government to work with the people and answer our demands, until then we will be here,” said Stav Shafir, one of the protest leaders.
Living in debt
Israel’s economic growth is relatively healthy – averaging 4.5% since 2004 – and unemployment has fallen from 11% to 6% in the same period. And yet the country has one of the highest poverty rates and income gaps in the developed world.
And in recent months prices for homes, food and fuel have risen. Because of the high cost of living, many working Israelis are living in debt.
For example the average Israeli salary is about $2,500 per month, while teachers and social workers earn less than $2,000 per month. But in central Jerusalem the rent on a modest three bedroom apartment can cost upward of $1,500 per month and more in Tel Aviv.
Roni Sofer, an aide to Netanyahu, said, “[The PM] understands the severity of the problems and believes there are serious solutions, but actions need to be taken responsibly”.
He added that Mr Netanyahu is appointing a team of ministers on Sunday “to provide a working plan by September”.