There are profound and institutionalized economic disparities between Arabs and Jews in Israel. But when it comes to housing prices, an Israeli Arab who makes $1,000 a month and pays $500 in rent can still find common ground with an Israeli Jew making $2,000 and giving $1,000 to the landlord.
On Saturday, approximately 150,000 people flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and many small suburbs and towns to protest the rising cost of living. It was Israel’s largest demonstration on any issue in over a decade, and organizers are calling for an even larger protest this weekend, mimicking the snowballing weekly rallies of the Arab Spring.
The protests that are paralyzing Israel began on July 14, when a few professionals in their 20s decided they could no longer tolerate the city’s uncontrolled rents, and pitched six tents at the top of the city’s most elegant street, Rothschild Boulevard. Three weeks later, the six tents have swelled to over 400, and more than 40 similar encampments have spread across the country, forming unlikely alliances between gay activists and yeshiva students, corporate lawyers and the homeless and ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs.
So far, the protesters have managed to remain apolitical, refusing to declare support for any leader or to be hijacked by any political party. But there is one issue conspicuously missing from the protests: Israel’s 44-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, which exacts a heavy price on the state budget and is directly related to the lack of affordable housing within Israel proper.
According to a report published by the activist group Peace Now, the Israeli government is using over 15 percent of its public construction budget to expand West Bank settlements, which house only 4 percent of Israeli citizens. According to the Adva Center, a research institute, Israel spends twice as much on a settlement resident as it spends on other Israelis.
Indeed, much of the lack of affordable housing in Israeli cities can be traced back to the 1990s, when the availability of public housing in Israel was severely curtailed while subsidies in the settlements increased, driving many lower-middle-class and working-class Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza Strip — along with many new immigrants.
Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population. The annual cost of maintaining control over Palestinian land is estimated at over $700 million.
Had the protesters begun by hoisting signs against the occupation, they would most likely still be just a few people in tents. By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together. And by decidedly placing the occupation outside of the debate, the protesters have neutralized much of the fear-mongering traditionally employed in Israel to silence discussions of social issues.
But even as they call for the strengthening of Israel’s once-robust welfare state, the protesters are disregarding the fact that it is alive and well in the West Bank. Although some of their demands can be met without addressing the settlements (like heavier taxes on landlords’ rental income to discourage rent increases), Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation.
Ironically, all of this comes just as Israel’s economy is being praised for managing to escape the worldwide recession: unemployment is at a 20-year low, terrorism is down and tourism is thriving. But such statistics are not enough to save Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from a broader sense of public dissatisfaction. And his efforts to appease protesters by promising to privatize state-owned land and cut red tape have failed. Mr. Netanyahu, a committed Thatcherite, will not win over the masses with market-based solutions.
Last week, young medical school residents walked out of hospitals mid-shift and prepared a collective resignation letter, putting Israel’s entire health care system on the verge of collapse. On Monday, thousands of Israelis took a day off from work in a spontaneous “solo strike” coordinated through Facebook. And this week, lecturers and nurses plan to stage their own strikes.
If the protests continue to stir more and more Israelis out of their political despondency, Mr. Netanyahu still holds two possible trump cards: a sudden breakthrough in the negotiations to free the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza, or a sudden escalation of armed conflict.
Moreover, the impending United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood in September imposes a deadline of sorts on the protesters. If Palestinians react by marching on Israeli army checkpoints to demand freedom, Israeli protesters will have to choose between losing internal support by siding with the Palestinians, or abandoning any claim of a pro-democracy agenda by siding with the Israeli soldiers charged with suppressing them.
Before September comes, the protesters must first secure some more earthly achievements, like rent control in Israel’s larger cities, or perhaps, as the placards demand, even bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Only then could a sense of victory and democratic empowerment propel Israelis toward challenging the occupation, which remains the single greatest obstacle to social and political justice on either side of the Green Line.
By Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and photographer and Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian columnist with the newspaper Al Quds. They are both regular bloggers at +972 Magazine.