Israelis set up tent cities as protests over high house prices and rents spread across the country

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Pastor Dale Morgan

Jul 22, 2011, 6:08:35 PM7/22/11
Perilous Times

Israelis set up tent cities as protests over high house prices and rents spread across the country

    * Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
    *, Friday 22 July 2011 15.54 BST


Israeli demonstrators set up a tent camp in the centre of the coastal city of Ashdod to protest against the rising cost of housing.

Tent protest villages have sprung up across Israel over the past week to demand action on house prices and rents, attracting large numbers of young workers and students, huge media attention and the panic of politicians beginning to feel the heat of people power.

The centre of the nationwide protest is Rothschild Boulevard, a coveted and affluent avenue in Tel Aviv, whose central pedestrian pathway is now littered with hundreds of small pop-up tents, posters, battered furniture and people strumming guitars and debating into the night.

The protest movement has spread to cities and towns across the country, including Jerusalem and the desert city of Beer Sheva. The citizens of the tent villages, along with their many supporters, are expected to join a big rally on Saturday night that, according to Daphni Leif, who initiated the protest on Facebook, will "make the upper echelon shake".

Sitting on a discarded car seat under a makeshift awning close to the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Nadav, 28, said rents had increased by around 50% in the past few years. "We are earning less and paying more, and we want a solution that allows us to live in a reasonable place at an affordable price," he said.

A student at Hebrew University with a part-time job, Nadav said one of the reasons for Jerusalem's high prices was 12,000 "ghost apartments" owned by wealthy Jews who visit for "a month or a month and half, tops, each year. Every apartment they buy pushes up prices for everyone."

Taly Spiegel, 27, said she and her boyfriend had been looking for an apartment to rent for two months but could not find anything they could afford. A third of her income from her job in an environmental consultancy would have to go on rent.

Any solution to the housing crisis would take five or 10 years to have an impact, she said. When would she be able to buy an apartment? "Not in the next 10 years," she said. "That's very optimistic," said Nadav.

The Facebook-driven tent villages across Israel have echoes of the pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, but Nadav was quick to point out important differences. "This is a middle-class protest, focused on one issue. People in Egypt didn't have a lot to lose. They had no civil rights and no trust in their government." But, he added, "I've kind of lost my trust in my government too because it doesn't serve my needs."

The Israeli government is alarmed at the spread of the protests and how the issue has united left and right, religious and secular, and the middle-class with their less-affluent fellow citizens.

The housing protest swiftly followed a widespread consumer boycott of cottage cheese in protest at the high cost of dairy products. Dairy companies were forced to cut prices, and the government initiated a review of the industry.

The prime minister has this week promised swift action to relieve the housing crisis and has held late-night meetings with cabinet colleagues to consider possible measures. The housing ministry promised to issue tenders for the construction of 6,000 new housing units – but none in Tel Aviv, and many in West Bank settlements.

The Israeli media has devoted large amounts of space and airtime to both the housing and cottage cheese protests, along with a long-running labour dispute by doctors over pay. Domestic issues such as these are more likely to sink Netanyahu's coalition than progress, or lack of it, in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, say some commentators.

At the Jerusalem tent village, a hand-written poster advertised music sessions, discussion groups and demonstrations. On Friday protesters carried sofas and chairs to one of the city's main streets for a traffic-blocking sit-in.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who face huge housing pressures due to the large size of their families, pitched a tent alongside the core of students and young workers.

How long did they plan to stay? Nadav paused before answering. "As long as it takes," he said eventually.

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