Over a quarter of a million Israelis staged the country's biggest protest in decades over the weekend, calling for far-reaching social reform to ease the financial burden of the increasingly straitened middle class.
Israeli media reported the numbers of protesters at over 300,000, most of them in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of youths have been camped out for nearly four weeks in tents and wigwams in protest at soaring living costs, the original source of frustration.
Since their modest beginnings, the protests have mushroomed into a nationwide movement addressing a whole range of issues that have brought together Israelis from both ends of the political spectrum in a rare show of unity. Personal politics have taken second place to gripes over high taxation, soaring food and petrol costs, the divide between the rich and poor, and shrinking social services.
They also represent a critical challenge for Israel's right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a proponent of free-market reform. His fractured coalition has struggled to present concrete solutions to the diverse set of demands, many of which call for the kind of sweeping change that harks back to Israel's early socialist principles.
In an effort to defuse the protests, Mr Netanyahu yesterday formed a panel of economic experts and cabinet ministers to study ways to bring down the cost of living, which has soared at the expense of stagnant salaries even though Israel's economy is thriving. While promising "real dialogue", he warned that "we won't be able to please everyone".
But protest organisers seemed reluctant to embrace the government's measures, wary that it would fail to translate into actual social reform. "I want to be sure... we will not be given the runaround for three months, at the end of which we will not emerge with real solutions," Itzik Shmuli, a protest leader, told Israel Radio.
On Saturday night, Tel Aviv's main thoroughfares were thronged with people holding banners with slogans including "We want a welfare state", and "Israel is dear". "There has been nothing like this for decades – all these people coming together, taking to the streets, demanding change. It's a revolution," Baruch Oren, a 33-year-old protest leader, told Reuters. But not all felt themselves caught in the embrace of the protesters. Amid the hundreds of tents catering to different social causes, only tent No 1948 addresses issues linked to Palestinians and the Israeli Arab community. Critics claim that protest organisers have explicitly avoided turning the protests into a referendum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear it will be seen as leftist and lose support. "Perhaps if I was a Jewish Israeli, I [would] be proud of the July 14 movement. ... [But] I am Palestinian," Abir Kopty, an Israeli Arab activist, wrote on her blog. "I want to speak about historical justice, I want to speak about occupation ... and I want to speak about them in the heart of Tel Aviv."
In the occupied West Bank, too, Palestinians are following the protests with interest, but argue that Israelis are seeking rights that the Palestinians can only dream of. "For us Palestinians, it isn't a housing crisis we are facing but a housing ban," Nariman al-Tamimi, a Palestinian woman from Nabi Salih, a village in an Israel-controlled part of the West Bank, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Her home is under threat of demolition after the family, unable to secure permits to build, added an unauthorised extension.
Others predicted that protesters would start linking the deterioration of their economic condition with the Jewish West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law, into which successive Israeli governments have invested huge sums of money in the shape of tax breaks and cheap loans.
"In due course, [the protesters] will reach the conclusion that the money for the major reforms they demand can only come from stopping the settlements and cutting the huge military budget by hundreds of billions – and that is possible only in peace," wrote Uri Avnery, an Israeli former politician, in a weekly letter.
Q & A:
War on cheese prices turns into a wider class struggle
Q. How did the protests in Israel begin?
A. Organisers say that a Facebook campaign against a rise in cottage cheese prices in June provided the inspiration for collective action. However, the protests actually started when a young woman was evicted from her apartment in central Tel Aviv because she had failed to pay her monthly rent. She erected a tent on the city's stylish Rothschild Boulevard, prompting hundreds of others struggling with high rents to join her.
Q. What are the demonstrations about?
A. They were initially about the high cost of rented accommodation, which has risen much more quickly than the average Israeli income. The protests now embrace issues ranging from high taxation, the cost of childcare, low salaries for doctors and nurses and calls for improvements to social services, which have shrunk in recent years. Many people have directed their anger at the country's wealthiest families, who are seen as growing rich at the expense of ordinary Israelis via monopolies that have pushed up the cost of goods.
Q. So who is actually doing the protesting?
A. Broadly speaking, it is Israel's middle class. They pay high taxes but receive few of the welfare benefits that are extended to the poor.
Q. What is the government doing about the problems?
A. The government has struggled to meet the diverse demands of the protesters. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pushed through a housing reform Bill last week, which protesters said would benefit the rich and damage the environment. The government's latest step is to set up a Cabinet-level economic task force to look at ways to bring down prices. It has a month to reach its conclusions.