HOLON, ISRAEL -- An angry crowd pressed around the door of the tiny community council office in the poor neighborhood here called Jesse Cohen one morning last week, shoving and pounding at the rickety wooden frame and screaming at the blank concrete wall.
Inside were three members of Israel's parliament and the mayor of Holon -- the latest official delegation to parade to this long-neglected area in recent days. On the sandy, trash-strewn lot next door stood the ploy that had finally gotten their attention: a ragtag collection of tents and huts, housing about 40 families, that is the latest and most squalid of the encampments of homeless people that have been appearing around Israel this summer.
The politicians delivered their promises: Within a day, they said, they would locate empty government-owned apartments in the neighborhood that could be made available to the families in the tent city. But no one believed them, least of all the ragged knot of men and women who kept up a constant, menacing din of blows and screams outside the office door.
"You're always promising," Shlomo Daoudi, a community organizer, shouted at the legislators. "We know what you'll do. You'll find apartments for three families to slow down the protest, and then you'll go away and forget us."
The edge of bitterness in Daoudi's voice is nothing new in Jesse Cohen, a sandy, nearly treeless expanse of concrete garden apartments that has been a focus of poverty and anger since it was thrown up in the 1950s to house Jewish refugees from Morocco, Iraq and other Arab countries.
But what is different this summer in Tel Aviv's poor suburbs, and what has attracted the attention of parliamentary deputies from both left and right, is that the latest unrest has come about as a side effect of the country's most precious project -- the absorption of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants arriving from the Soviet Union.
The immigration, which has brought more than 50,000 people to the country so far this year and is expected to deliver hundreds of thousands, is regarded as a blessing by most Israelis and as a sacred cause by its politicians, who until now have largely ignored the dislocations it may cause. As more and more families arrive, however, parts of Israel's society are being painfully squeezed by the national effort at absorption, touching off the beginnings of a backlash that has stunned and worried authorities.
"There will be a civil war here," said Eliahu Shukrun, a spokesman for the tent movement in Jerusalem, in an example of the rhetoric alarming the government. "It's not that we have something against the immigrants, but they are pushing us out."
To be sure, the Soviet migrants are not coming to Jesse Cohen, a neighborhood where drug addiction seems to be a more common occupation than paid work. But around the country, thousands of the recent arrivals are moving into comfortable new apartments and stocking up on expensive appliances, thanks to the generous stipends they are given by the state. A Soviet family arriving in Israel receives about $11,000 its first year, including $240 a month for rent, and can arrange for the government to pay the landlord a year in advance.
Slowly but surely, that pampering has had a corrosive effect on the morale of Israelis of lesser means and the economic realities they live by. In many parts of the country, rents for increasingly scarce apartments have doubled or tripled, while an already depressed job market has grown even tighter. Yet because of the government's subsidy system, it is poor Israelis and young couples with incomes well below $11,000, rather than the immigrants, who are suffering the consequences.
Last month, groups of families in Jerusalem, Netanya, Rishon le Zion and other cities set up tent encampments in parks or on municipal property, claiming they were forced out of their homes by high rent and demanding government relief. When the even poorer people of Jesse Cohen heard the news, they quickly started their own shantytown, not so much because rents are rising but because families here have been afflicted for years by crowded living conditions and unemployment.
"What you should write," one toothless woman here shouted at a visiting reporter, "is not that we are living in tents for a few days but that our problems have been ignored for decades."
In some places, the tent cities are more a product of public relations than real homelessness, as Israelis exercise the country's time-honored tactic of creating a spectacle to force government action. In Jerusalem, an encampment has been established in a garden next to the Knesset, or parliament, on the same spot where protesters demanding electoral reform squatted in May.
In Jesse Cohen, however, it is more a case of desperate people having been stirred by the protests to put their own, long-invisible culture of poverty on display.
One woman here who tended a shelter made of sticks and blankets, Yaffa Ospist, said it had become the home of her two grown and married daughters, both of whom had previously lived with her in her public-housing apartment. Both daughters, she said, were unemployed drug addicts, and one of her sons-in-law was in prison.
"We were always fighting at home, and I finally threw them out," Ospist said of her daughters. "Then they heard people were putting up shelters here so they came."
Everywhere in the camp, living space seems to be the least of the problems of families afflicted by drugs, crime and hopelessness. Even as officials try to placate the squatters, the conditions make them worry that what began as a middle-class protest will end in explosive discontent among the country's poor.
For now, the government is focusing on the housing shortage. After months of delay, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's new cabinet has taken steps to begin a crash housing program, planning to assemble 3,000 prefabricated homes in eight towns around the country and renovate 2,000 public-housing apartments.
In an address to the families at the tent city in Rishon le Zion last week, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon promised that another 50,000 apartments would be built by housing contractors before the end of the year. Thousands of these would be bought by the government "and will be given at low rent to Israelis," he promised.
Some officials say that while the housing crisis may yet grow worse as tens of thousands of immigrants pour into the country this summer, the shortage in many communities could be eased by the end of the year. But even the sympathetic legislators who visited Jesse Cohen were not optimistic that its troubles could be dealt with.
"We have to find a solution for everyone," Labor Party member Shimon Shetreet, one of the delegation, told community representatives. But he was interrupted by a member of the ruling Likud Party, Michael Eitan, who demanded: "What are you saying? You're deluding them. Where are we going to find these people apartments? This is a national problem."