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Israel's housing protesters: Bibi go home
As tent cities pop up across country, 150,000 marchers show solidarity and PM promises panel to fix the problem.
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2011 18:07

Before summer, the prime minister of Israel was riding high, with an approval rating higher than 50 per cent. Though this threatened to be a long hot summer, there has been no war, third intifada or attack on Iran.

Admired at home for "standing up" to the US president in Washington, Binyamin Netanyahu is now being stood down by the common man on the streets of Tel Aviv. The latest survey of public opinion in Israel shows Bibi's popularity, at 32 per cent, has taken a dive due to rapidly escalating housing protests.

In the aftermath of feared Nakba, Naksa, Flotilla II and Flytilla protests on which the media and the defence-oriented, right-wing government had been fixated, tent cities have sprung up in dozens of locations around the country.

With calm borders, many commentators suggest the press needed a new focus, and protesters have the political space they need so as not to be accused of harming national security.

Bibi's twin nightmares - a growing domestic housing crisis and the imminent push for Palestinian statehood at the UN in September - threaten to merge internal and external forces into a political colossus.

Tent cities have sprung up just 60 days before Palestinian envoys take their case to the world body at its annual gathering in New York. But top figures in the somewhat leaderless popular protest movement, as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials, are loath to conflate an internal Israeli problem with the Palestinian question.

Israel's 'Arab revolution'

At Saturday's massive rallies - billed by the Ma'ariv daily "150,000 in largest social protest in the history of the country" - an unprecented number of Israelis marched across the country. Ordinary citizens expressed a sense of communal euphoria, and a glowing pride in the size of the new movement. They also chanted anti-Netanyahu refrains louder than the week prior on July 23.

For several weeks, grassroots protesters from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to Ashdod and Kiryat Shmona have been camping out in city centres and blocking streets. Marching on the prime minister's residence and chanting "Bibi Habayta" ["Bibi, go home"] and "Netanyahu degage" was unthinkable just last month, so the ruling coalition is looking increasingly vulnerable.

The problem uniting protesters hinges on real estate - a lack of urban housing at decent prices. That and the issue of the basic standard of living, tied to soaring costs for all sorts of goods, has energised previously apolitical citizens to clamour for change, united by a common sense of feeling ripped off.

The rhythmic Hebrew slogans used at many of the protests are strikingly similar to punchy Arabic lines that have reverberated throughout the Middle East since January: "Ha'am doresh / tzedek chevrati" ["The people demand social justice"].

Israelis hold up banners as they march in the centre of the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 30 [AFP]

The movement coalesced via social media and holds fast the premise that the current government fails to serve all its citizens effectively.

"When we started, it was one girl [Daphni Leef] who opened a Facebook page. I wrote her and said I'd be more than happy to help," says Roee Neuman, spokesman for the protest movement. "And since then, a lot of people have joined us, even right-wing parties."

"I quit my job two weeks ago as a sales person at an insurance company in central Tel Aviv. I've been staying in a tent since then, and it feels like Woodstock at times, with artists playing every evening.

"To communicate as a group, we have a sign language that we took from the [protesters] in Spain. It's extremely civilised like I've never seen elsewhere."

Neuman, 27, explains that the crisis reached a boiling point once people realised how dramatically costs had risen. "Now we pay 40 to 50 per cent of our salary on rent. Two years ago it was 26 per cent."

"Unfortunately, I don't think things will be resolved by September," Neuman said. "We will still be here then because we have [a] problem, we can barely afford to live in cities."

Nationally mobilised

With echoes of social demonstrations in Madrid, anti-regime rallies in Tunis and the anti-corruption protest camp in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Israelis from across the spectrum are suddenly politicised.

The Israelis who are pitching tents along a 1.5km stretch of Rothschild Street in central Tel Aviv - largely young, secular, liberal and middle-class - were seemingly apathetic before.

Many were reportedly too cynical to bother understanding why there was no peace with the Palestinians, or were unable to voice their concerns formally. Despite an established democratic tradition and well-respected freedom of expression, the bulk of the mainstream seemingly just did not care to engage politically.

The revolutionary movements of yesteryear have their seats in the Knesset and around the cabinet table. But the old generation of Israeli leaders is perceived to be out of touch with the needs of the protesters, and this is what the movement is seeking to communicate.

Tent cities have sprung up in dozens of locales Source: Original Google map by Hagar Shezaf

On the heels of an announcement on Wednesday by the powerful Histadrut labour federation that its groups would join protests by Sunday if the government did not meet protester demands by Saturday night, the demonstrators say they are prepared for a nationwide general strike on August 1, to which the Union of Local Authorities in Israel has also committed.

Protesters are spurred on by the recognition that cottage cheese protests actually worked earlier this summer. With an organised boycott, consumer advocates successfully encouraged companies to lower the price of a basic food item consumed by large percentage of the public. The demonstrations also follow an effective social worker strike in the spring.

Other groups have also recently committed to the protest movement, including writers, psychologists and medical doctors, who had already been striking for three months.

On Thursday, mothers converged on King George Street in Tel Aviv for a "stroller march" to protest against the high price of raising children and to force the government to begin providing free public child care starting at three months instead of three years of age. And notable women's organisations such as Naamat and WIZO announced their support for the movement.

The wide array of groups say they are fed up with corruption and the cost of doing business. Establishment politics is not seen as helpful to their lives and many suggest the new boycott ban pushed them over the edge.

Persistently high taxes, accompanied by the gradual attenuation of the Israeli welfare state, has eroded the middle-class stability that people had come to expect. Activists say they are pinched by inflation and the loss of a real social safety net.

Some scholars point to a similar process of urban gentrification and implementation of neo-liberal policies in New York and London, Beirut and Tel Aviv. Even if liberal capitalism won out over socialism in Israel, there is an undoubtedly collectivist sentiment in the tent cities that dot the country.

Protest leaders link their general economic grievances to less well-off OECD countries such as Spain, and relate their political complaints to the Arab awakening.

But the Israeli government rejects explicit comparisons with the Middle East revolutions.

"Unlike neighbouring countries, we're used to demonstrations," says Mark Regev, the prime minister's spokesman. "They're not always as big as the current housing one, but this is part of Israeli democracy."

Regev alludes to the durability of "people power" and says "no one will get arrested just protesting", in contrast with Syria and Egypt.

When asked if the demonstrators have systemic political gripes beyond specific hot-button issues, Regev told Al Jazeera: "I don’t think the demonstrators are calling for democratic reforms, because they know we live in a democratic country."

Haaretz, the left-leaning broadsheet, has featured commentary critical of the government's handling of the protests since they began. One article explains the rasion d'etre and demographics of the movement:

"Since the only subsidised housing built in the past 20 years has been for the ultra-Orthodox or in the settlements, the current protest is overwhelmingly secular," writes Anshell Pfieffer, articulating the general perception that urban, non-religious Israelis have seen scant assistance on the housing front.

Housing shortage

Israel's prime minister described the current situation as a "complicated and challenging reality" in Sunday's cabinet meeting, and pledged a "special team of ministers and experts that will propose a responsible and practical plan to alleviate Israelis' economic burden".

Protesters say the government stopped investing in public and low-income housing before many of them were born.

"People want more dramatic change in policy. In recent years we have seen huge cuts in public investment in housing," says Gil Gan-Mor, a housing attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Gan-Mor says protesters are critical of the free market's perceived ability to solve the housing crisis and are against class-based residential segregation.

A steady influx of wealthy diaspora Jews from New York, Miami and Paris who bought up flats in Israel's big cities has driven up prices in many affluent neighbourhoods along the Mediterranean coast in cities such as Tel Aviv and Netanya, in addition to Jerusalem. Many of these "ghost" apartments are used as vacation homes and sit vacant much of the year.

As a result of market pressures, housing costs are 31 per cent higher year-over-year in Tel Aviv, and almost as high in other cities.

 
Al Jazeera's Tom Ackerman reports on Israel's protests

To allow the housing supply to keep pace with growing demand, Netanyahu's offer last week to the protesters includes a pledge to cut through red-tape and construct 50,000 housing units over the next few years, and provide public transportation assistance to students.

"We have initiated a series of steps to deal with higher real estate prices in Israel, and they will start bearing fruit in the near future, including the 10,000 dorms," Regev, spokesman for the prime minister, says.

"This is something the PM has been talking about for [the] last two years - but hadn’t been given public attention. The demonstrations have given him a tail wind to push forward the reforms."

Many protesters say the government needs to go much further, but that the reforms are a good start.

"On the positive side, we see that the government wants to pass a law providing for affordable housing on private land," explains attorney Gan-Mor, who says protesters demand an increase in low-income housing vouchers, after a "56 per cent cut in the budget for housing assistance in the past decade".

Many protesters also say they do not want to live in the distant suburbs, where rent is cheap but amenities are far. Public transportation is notoriously bad in Tel Aviv, where people joke that "the messiah will arrive before the new light rail is built".

Growing inequality

The fundamentals of Israel's economy appear robust, compared with many vulnerable economies suffering from the financial crisis, and Netanyahu's government gloats that the GDP is growing fast and jobs are plentiful.

"Our employment is very, very low. And inflation is under control," says Regev, the PM's spokesman. "The IMF and OECD say our vital economic symptoms are very positive … But that doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels."

Regev does highlight the importance of addressing the "cartels" - a small number of families that have monopoly control over a disproportionate number of industries.

Although considered a right-leaning paper, Yisrael HaYom, the country’s highest-circulation daily, takes a populist line in bold headlines criticising the "tycoons" who have the "chutzpah" for whining how protests are "cutting into their profits".

Ben Hartman, a journalist covering the housing crisis for the Jerusalem Post, says, "It's not crippling the economy, like the revolution in Egypt, but more people are bringing up that Bibi should step down".

Israeli police officer detains a demonstrator wearing a shirt that says, in Hebrew: 'Black Panther' [AFP]

Social inequality is on the rise in Israel, now among the highest in the industrialised world. And this has fuelled public rage.

Efraim Davidi, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University, says there is a simple reason why the vast majority of Israelis support the protesters against the government.

"The situation of working families is getting worse and worse. It's very difficult to buy an apartment, car, food," says Davidi, who visits the Rothschild Street encampment - one of five tent cities in Tel Aviv - every night. "Prices here are like in Europe, but salaries are like those in the Third World."

"'Little groups of lefties' is what the the government labels us, but this is a very large part of population," Davidi says. "A recent Haaretz poll said 87 per cent support [the housing protests] and 85 per cent support the doctors' strike."

A true smorgasborg of groups have joined the movement, including students, teachers, yuppies, gay rights activists, anarchists, environmentalists and labourers.

Neuman, the protest spokesman, points out their cultural diversity, explaining how there are mixed Arab-Jewish tents at the tent camp in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv, and a mixed Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) and Arab protest site at the Meron Junction in the northern Galilee region.

According to some right-wing groups, religious people are not inclined to join for fear that the movement is too secular, and could ultimately turn to other left-wing causes that they would oppose.

Activists say there is a mix of Ashkenazis and Israelis of non-European origin, whereas in the past, left-wing demonstrations - concerning Palestine, migrant worker rights and many other issues - were often dominated by Ashkenazis.

Connection to anti-occupation protests

Middle-class Israelis contend they are "priced out" of a decent life, using language that is reminiscent of decades of anger from working-class Israelis in the development towns of the periphery, Arabs experiencing a housing crunch in the villages of the north and - on the other side of the Green Line - by Palestinians in the West Bank.

Sources from opposing camps have insisted to Al Jazeera that - while both the housing crisis and Palestinian question are tied to a broader conflict over land - it is wrong to assert that the issues are linked on the ground.

A joint Arab-Jewish march for Palestinian statehood on July 15 from Jerusalem's Damascus Gate to the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood saw no more than a few thousand people, compared with the much larger turnout for the latest housing rallies.

Poster circulated by protesters with Israeli PM asking sarcastically: "You don't like the incentives I am offering? So go live in a tent"

Regardless, Israeli media are abuzz with speculation about whether Netanyahu's governing coalition will be diverting attention from this domestic threat with a fresh security problem that emerges in the coming weeks or months.

The longevity of the protests is unpredictable but their popularity seems to be reaching a crescendo. While rallies could get rowdy, Israelis say there is a low likelihood of violence.

The housing crisis is occurring simultaneously with the Palestinian Authority's "massive diplomatic campaign to gain recognition of statehood".

A Palestinian official involved in the UN statehood bid, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Al Jazeera: "This Israeli government has failed internally and externally, but the demonstrations they are facing is their problem. We don't interfere on this."

Neuman, a housing protest spokesman, said: "We also completely separate those issues on our part." He implied that many activists support the Palestinian quest but do not want to scare away a broad swath of Israelis wary of throwing their weight behind the anti-occupation cause.

Palestinians look to secure a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, since their bid would likely be vetoed by the US in the Security Council. An unprecedented global effort to convince the countries of the world to vote in favor of Palestinian independence - and an equally massive counter-movement by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs - has kicked into full gear.

For now, Israel's social protest movement is all but divorced from the effort to recognise a state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital.

"If another intifada or a serious security flare up happens, then the [housing protests] could all end very quickly," the Jerusalem Post's Hartman says. 

"The duration of the protests just depends on whether a serious enough 'foreign policy' crisis distracts the media."

Follow Ben Piven on Twitter: @BenPiven

Source:
Al Jazeera
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