JERUSALEM — Hundreds of thousands of Israelis returned to the streets in cities across the country Saturday night to protest the high cost of living, showing the resilience of a social justice movement eclipsed last month by security concerns after deadly attacks in southern Israel.
Police estimated that more than 300,000 people participated nationwide, but media reports from across the country said that more than 400,000 joined demonstrations in more than a dozen cities and towns — the most since the protests began two months ago.
The protest was one of the biggest in Israel’s history.
What began as a tent encampment in Tel Aviv to protest rising housing costs mushroomed over the summer into a national grass-roots movement for social justice and more equitable distribution of wealth. It has been driven by middle-class Israelis who complain that rising living costs are outstripping their salaries.
With the battle-cry “the people demand social justice!,” the movement has redefined the Israeli public agenda, traditionally dominated by security concerns and the grinding conflict with the Palestinians.
Those security issues were thrust back into the limelight last month after an attack by gunmen near the Red Sea resort of Eilat left eight Israelis dead and triggered a surge of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and rocket attacks on southern Israel. The violence appeared to deflate the protest movement, reducing the size of the weekly demonstrations and thinning the ranks of the tent encampments.
But Saturday’s protests suggested that the movement, which has prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a panel to address its demands, was still very much alive.
Meital Sinai, a 31-year-old pharmacist who attended a rally in Jerusalem with her twin baby boys, said that although she and her husband were both working, they were struggling to make ends meet, and that “the security situation is not the only issue that is important for our existence.”
Avihai Kimhi, 48, who came to the protest with his daughter, said that the government “shouldn’t try to scare us with talk about rockets and terrorist attacks. There are people whose job it is to handle security. We have to look out for the economic security of all of us.”
In Tel Aviv, where a throng estimated at more than 300,000 people packed a central square, the message was summed up by Daphni Leef, who began the tent protest.
“We’re not here just to survive,” she told the crowd. “We’re here to live.”