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Housing protests galvanize young Israelis

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TEL AVIV — There’s a free massage corner in the tent city, a compost heap, a makeshift kitchen filled with donated food and a whiteboard bearing a list of tasks for volunteers, from cleaning to leading brainstorming sessions. Signs announce evening lectures and open-air movies at the “Revolution Theater.”

A growing protest movement against rising housing prices in Israel has spawned the tent camp that sprawls along Tel Aviv’s elegant Rothschild Boulevard. With similar encampments popping up in other cities, the movement is posing a serious political challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Tuesday responded by unveiling a plan for affordable housing.

Young Israelis fed up with high rents and soaring apartment prices have held raucous protests, blocking intersections in major cities and marching to parliament. The demonstrations began about two weeks ago, after Daphni Leef, 25, of Tel Aviv moved into a tent because she couldn’t find an affordable apartment and then invited others, via Facebook, to join her.

The movement, which has mobilized Israelis in ways that weighty questions of war and peace have not, shows the influence of the Arab Spring, emulating not just its organization methods but also some of its slogans.

“Corner of Rothschild and Tahrir,” read a hand-lettered banner at the tent camp here, invoking the Cairo square that was the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution this year.

Protesters in Jerusalem who marched on parliament Sunday demanded Netanyahu’s resignation and shouted, “The people want social justice!” in an echo of Arab protesters’ cry: “The people want to topple the regime!”

The demonstrations reflect growing discontent among middle-class Israelis, particularly young working people who say that rising costs of housing, food and fuel are outstripping their wages. The sense of hardship has intensified despite an expanding Israeli economy and a drop in the unemployment rate to a record low of 5.7 in May, according to official figures released Monday.

“The feeling is that no matter how hard you work, you can’t make it through the month,” Leef said at the protest camp headquarters.

The housing protests, including a march by thousands Saturday night in Tel Aviv, have punctured the public apathy toward political and social issues that had seemed particularly prevalent in the Mediterranean city, with its reputation for hedonism and self-absorption.

“I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for more than 10 years. We’ve always been accused of living in a bubble and not caring about anything, and we’ve proven them wrong,” said Yiftah Nener, 31, a freelance writer who came to volunteer at the tent city. He said that events in the Arab world had served as a model for the protest, adding, “We definitely have something to learn from our neighbors.”

Erez Daskal, 29, a tent-dweller who said he had left his apartment because his rent had become unaffordable, agreed.

People in the region “are starting to wake up, and so are we. That’s a good thing,” he said. “Everything is connected.”

The protesters have overwhelming public support, according to a poll published Tuesday in the Haaretz newspaper. The survey also showed that Netanyahu’s popularity had plunged because of the housing protests, with more than half of those surveyed unhappy with his response.

At a news conference Tuesday, Netanyahu announced steps to lower housing prices and make more apartments available, including accelerating planning approval for 50,000 units. Government plans also call for slashing the price of land for housing construction, promoting the construction of low-cost rental housing and allocating land for thousands more dormitory rooms for university students.

Protest leaders rejected the steps as inadequate and vowed to continue their demonstrations, calling for broader action to address social inequalities in Israel and growing gaps between rich and poor.

Their alternative vision is on display at the Tel Aviv tent camp, where banners call for “a welfare state now,” guerrilla poetry pasted on walls denounces wealthy tycoons, and used clothing and books are free. The communal kitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner at no charge.

At the Jerusalem demonstration near parliament, Itai Gutler, a student leader, said that the movement included people from all sectors of Israeli society and had a larger goal than more affordable housing. “We won’t stop the fight,” he said, “until there is real social change.”

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