x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

300,000 protest in Israel for reforms to ease cost of living

More than 300,000 people take part in rallies in Israel, indicating that the protest movement is shifting the national debate to economic and social matters and away from the years-long dominance of security issues.

TEL AVIV // Israel's biggest ever social and economic protest movement got an adrenalin shot yesterday.

In what appeared to be a renewed show of support for the seven-week-old demonstrations against the high cost of living in the country, more than 300,000 people took part in rallies in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, Israel's three biggest cities, and other sites.

The rally was broadcast live by the main television stations, indicating the extensive national attention that the protest movement had attracted and its significance in shifting the national debate to economic and social matters and away from the years-long dominance of security issues.

Crowds of young and old Israelis filled the main streets of Tel Aviv and held up signs including "Welfare state now!" and "An entire generation demands a future!" as many yelled the movement's slogan of "The people demand social justice." In Tel Aviv, where the main protest took place, more than 200,000 people marched from the luxurious, tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard, on which demonstrators had initiated the Facebook-driven campaign by pitching hundreds of tents, to a main square in another neighbourhood.

Yesterday's rallies were widely viewed as a test for whether Israelis still had an appetite for pursuing the protest's goals - namely, persuading the government to offer affordable housing and consumer goods as well as improving conditions in health and education and minimising income gaps.

In the last two weeks, the media have dedicated less attention to the protests as they focused more on security following a terror attack that killed eight Israelis in mid August.

Protest leaders had campaigned to draw participants to what they had termed the "million-man march," which they said was a symbolic number aiming to show that the event signified the climactic point of the movement so far.

Hundreds of police, backed by ambulance services, were on alert for the possibility that a terror attack might take place in the midst of the crowds that gathered in the centre of Tel Aviv.

While the protesters have shied away from connecting themselves to any political parties, their demonstrations appeared to help opposition factions pressure the government of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu's government has responded by forming a committee headed by a respected economist to examine the protesters' demands, although it has disappointed the movement's leaders by stating that it will not recommend the state spend outside its budget to pay for economic reforms.

Moshe Kahlon, a member of Mr Netanyahu's right wing Likud party and the government minister for welfare and social services, told Israel's channel 2 Television yesterday: "We are all attentive to the protesters and we will see very good results from their movement. Something has happened - this warship of the country's economy has shifted its direction."

The case of Eti Cohen, a 28-year-old art director at a Tel Aviv advertising firm who publicised a column in the popular Ynet website yesterday, appeared to reflect the hardships of many protesters.

Ms Cohen wrote that her low income barely allows her to pay rent of 1,800 Israeli shekels (Dh1,850) on a tiny room in an apartment in Tel Aviv. She said her parents, in their 50s, were unemployed ever since their grocery store was shut a decade ago, and have since moved to six different apartments because some were sold and the rent was raised on others.

"People like my parents who have served their country, worked their whole lives and paid taxes have no security net," she wrote.

"Between the high taxes, gasoline and food prices, lack of workplaces, low minimum wage, expensive housing costs and other illnesses of our small and broken country, it is simply impossible to make a living and keep our heads above water."