Middle East
Israeli protesters reject new housing bill
Social movement, angered by parliament's passage of "reforms", vows to continue mass demonstrations across the nation.
Last Modified: 03 Aug 2011 16:39
A woman sleeps on a couch at tent camp set up by protesters on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard [Reuters]

Activists from Israel's social protest movement have reacted furiously after parliament passed a housing bill that they say will favour the wealthy and endanger the environment.

Police said  on Wednesday that hundreds of demonstrators blocked intersections in cities across the country from the southern desert city of Beersheva to Kiryat Shmona in the far north.

Others stopped traffic in the business district of Tel Aviv.

A police spokeswoman said that six people were arrested - three in Tel Aviv and three in Beersheva.

Public radio reported that protesters blocked a total of 10 major junctions nationwide.

Protest leaders are calling for mass rallies to be held again on Saturday, a week after about 150,000 Israelis took to the streets across the country in some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the country.

They criticised the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has defended the bill as a measure that will help bring down housing costs, accusing him of ignoring their protests.

"Even though the people of Israel are out on the streets, despite the huge demonstrations Saturday night, Netanyahu and his government are not heeding the voice of the people," Yotam Brum, a student organiser, told public radio.

"They carry on and pass a law which is not acceptable to us, a law which will benefit big capital and not the citizens of Israel ... We shall continue to escalate our struggle until Netanyahu and his government understand that they serve the people and not the tycoons."

Not meeting 'demands'

Parliament's website said that the government-sponsored bill to streamline planning and building formalities passed by 57-45 votes.

In a statement, Netanyahu welcomed the bill's passage.

"The state of Israel today opened the taps for all those thirsting for accommodation at a reasonable price," he said.

"The act will fast-track thousands of apartments and bring down prices."

But opponents of the law, including much of the protest movement that has shaken the country in recent weeks, fear it will mainly encourage big developers to build luxury projects rather than affordable housing.

Green campaigners also say that streamlining planning procedures could result in construction without proper environmental safeguards.

Delegates from the various groups involved in the cost-of-living campaign continued working on Wednesday to draw up a common list of demands from the government on issues including affordable housing, taxation, child care and reforms to health and education.

"We agreed on taxes, and discussions will continue on Wednesday over our demands on health and education," Itzik Shmuli, a student union leader, told army radio.

The Jerusalem Post newspaper published a poll on Wednesday saying that if a "social party" representing the protest movement were to enter politics it could win 20 of parliament's 120 seats and become the second-largest party, with Netanyahu's Likud party projected to take 22.

The survey was conducted by Smith Research Institute with a sample of 500 people and a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

The protest movement has snowballed since it leapt last month from a call on Facebook onto the streets of Tel Aviv and across the country, tapping into deep frustration over the cost of living and income disparity.

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