Israel activists seek 'critical mass' at protests

AFP , Saturday 6 Aug 2011

Far from over, the protests in Israel over suffocating housing prices have been gaining more support and Saturday night hope to draw a 'critical mass'

Israel's growing protest movement is hoping to draw a "critical mass" of demonstrators across the Jewish state on Saturday night, as they push the government for reforms to ease living costs.

The demonstrations will test the appeal and staying power of a movement that began in mid-July over housing costs and has since mushroomed into a full-blown social uprising calling for across-the-board reforms to ease the cost of living and reduce Israel's income disparity.

"We're hoping to reach a critical mass of more than 200,000 protesters to force the government to radically change social policy," Hadas Kushlevitch, a representative of the protest movement, told AFP.

Kushlevitch, a student, accuses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of failing to take demonstrators' demands seriously and rejects his promise of a committee to look into their calls for reform.

The premier appears to have been caught off-guard by the protests, which drew 100,000 people into the streets in cities across Israel last Saturday.

He cancelled a foreign trip to address the rallies, setting a ministerial committee to look into their demands and expressing his sympathy with some of the concerns raised by protesters.

But his government has so far shied away from the sort of sweeping reforms that protesters are calling for, with Netanyahu explicitly warning against costly measures that he says could plunge Israel into a financial crisis.

Uri Metuki, another protest leader, makes no secret of the fact that he expects "the battle will be long."

"We are trying to change nothing more and nothing less than a whole system that privileges the interests of the individual to the detriment of the collective interest," he said.

But he does not see the movement running out of steam anytime soon.

"The movement has the support of a very large part of the population, which is not ready to renounce its demands," he says, accusing Netanyahu of acting "cynically ... in the hope that the movement will lose support."

The burgeoning movement sparked off over housing prices, when a handful of young activists set up a tent city in one of Tel Aviv's trendiest neighbourhoods to publicise their inability to afford homes.

It has tapped into deep frustration over what Israelis say is a growing gap between rich and poor and a general decline in social services that the state once provided.

Largely absent so far from the protesters' discourse has been the issue of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, with many reluctant to raise the controversial issue for fear of losing public support.

But individually, some protesters say they see a link between the outsized financial support that goes to support settlement construction and the dwindling government assistance for housing inside Israel.

In recent days, protesters have seen a new infusion of support from the Histadrut labour union, with several thousand members of the organisation joining demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Brandishing placards reading "the workers are with the protests," the union members listened as their secretary general Ofer Eini addressed the crowd and promised to support the demonstrations.

The Israeli media has also largely thrown its support behind the movement, with commentators flaying Netanyahu for his decision to submit protesters' claims to a committee and push through controversial housing legislation.

The laws, passed this week before the Knesset broke for a summer recess, streamlines the building process for contractors, which Netanyahu said would flood the market with housing and bring down prices.
But social and environmental activists say it will simply allow the construction of more luxury housing and could be abused by contractors who want to build without meeting environmental regulations.

The top-selling Yediot Aharanot newspaper on Friday questioned why Netanyahu had taken so long to act.
"If the protests are justified as Netanyahu says ... then why did he not come to this realisation before they were triggered?" it asked.

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