Israeli Summer heats up: Tent cities arise to protest housing costs

On Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s version of Park Avenue, a burgeoning tent city has sprung up amid crowded cafes and its canopy of ficus trees.

The squatters are protesting soaring housing prices in the country, and they have galvanized a sudden full-scale national protest, from Kiryat Shemona in the North to Beersheva in the South, that has plunged the government into crisis mode.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Poland this week and the interior minister has called for the Knesset to cancel its summer recess. Tent cities are swelling in cities across Israel, protesters are blocking roads and activists have practically besieged the Knesset. On the evening of July 23, an estimated 20,000 marchers filled the streets of Tel Aviv calling for affordable housing.

“For years, Israelis have been like zombies because of the security situation and did not speak out when other areas were ignored, like education and the economy,” said Amir Ben-Cohen, a 30-year-old graduate student camping out on Rothschild Boulevard. “Enough. We are a new generation.”

Some are hailing the protests as Israel’s version of the Arab Spring. This “Israeli Summer” movement is being led by university students and young professionals in their 20s and 30s who until now have shown little interest in demonstrations or activism. One sign strung between tents in Tel Aviv read, “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir,” a reference to the Egyptian uprising that centered in Tahrir Square.

Israelis sleep in a tent city in central Tel Aviv during a protest over the country’s high housing costs. photo/ap/oded balilty

With a recent poll in Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper showing 87 percent of Israelis supporting the housing protesters, their grievances appear to be striking a chord nationwide.

Like much of the world, Israelis recently have seen cost-of-living metrics rise across the board, especially for food and gasoline. Due to heavy taxes, a gallon of gas costs $8, and a family sedan carries a price tag of $35,000 or more.

But unlike in the United States, where real estate prices are in retreat, housing prices in Israel also have skyrocketed, on average doubling since 2002.

With the average Israeli salary at $2,500 a month and modest-sized apartments in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area selling for $600,000, many Israelis feel priced out of their own neighborhoods, particularly young people who live in places where there is a dearth of rental properties.

Eight months ago, Lital Yitzhak and her husband, a warehouse manager, were forced to move in with her mother because the $900 per month they were paying to rent a small apartment in one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods left them heavily in debt.

“I don’t know what a young couple is supposed to do,” said Yitzhak, a substitute preschool teacher. The couple has a combined income of about $1,800 a month — at the low end of what Israel’s working class pulls in.

However, the crunch many like them endure is not reflected through the country’s main economic indicators.

A month ago, Israel’s central bank raised its official 2011 growth forecast to 5.2 percent, more than twice the International Monetary Fund’s estimate released in June for real GDP growth for advanced economies. Unemployment in Israel has fallen to 5.8 percent, its lowest level in decades.

On the surface, the gains are impressive. Expensive apartment complexes are being built, new cars ply the streets, and pricey restaurants are packed.

But many Israelis complain that the overt signs of economic growth are misleading — reflecting the benefits enjoyed by a wealthy minority while the majority struggle.

Many jobs are available only for part-time employees or offer low wages with few benefits, experts say, while the government’s critics point to an underdeveloped public transit system as curtailing access to better paying jobs.

The images of the tent camps, appearing on the evening news and front pages of newspapers, have caught Netanyahu’s attention — in part because they come at a time when iconic images of tents in central Cairo speak to the political upheaval taking place in neighboring Egypt. Much of that unrest, too, stems from years of economic inequity and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist, noted that in Israel it’s unusual for socioeconomic issues to take priority over security issues.

“What is very troubling for Netanyahu is that this is not a left-wing versus right-wing protest. It’s one of the few issues that cuts across all political spectrums,” he said.

Netanyahu, who identified the affordable housing shortage as a potential crisis when he came to power in 2009, has been scolding his ministers for not doing enough.

“Give me ideas for a solution,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Israeli media as telling his Cabinet ministers.

The prime minister announced July 26 that his government was preparing a battery of solutions, among them plans to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to building new housing projects and measures that would help young people make their first real estate purchases.

He also promised construction of new student dormitories and the construction of 10,000 two- and three-bedroom units, mostly in central Israel, to be earmarked for young couples, large families and students.

Hours after Netanyahu’s news conference unveiling his plan, the protest’s leaders held their own news conference dismissing the plan as a piecemeal attempt to divide students from other protesters.

Itzik Shmueli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, said at the news conference that although Netanyahu’s plan was “unprecedented” and “historic,” it remained insufficient and that the union would continue participating in the protest.

Experts attribute the vertiginous rise in real estate prices in recent years to a combination of Israel’s small size, relatively high population growth, a strong shekel and an influx of foreign buyers, especially American and French Jews. Demand is strongest in the central part of the country, where most Israelis work and live, though prices in the periphery have risen, too.

In a country that managed to weather the international financial downturn exceptionally well, many Israelis still feel financially strapped. A significant portion of the nation’s private wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few families, the gaps between rich and poor is wider than ever and poverty rates remain among the highest in the Western world.

Israeli hospitals and health clinics are in the midst of a doctors’ strike, which followed a large social workers’ strike. Both groups cited low wages as their reasons. And a boycott last month of cottage cheese to protest rising prices for the Israeli staple appears to have been a symptom of widespread economic discontent that the housing protests also are tapping into.

“Whereas the street has been relatively quiet in the last 20 years, it’s beginning to wake up and demand part of national wealth that does not seem to be trickling down as much as it should,” Lehman-Wilzig said. “It’s not a call to return to Israel’s socialist past, but to a more collective feeling of society as a whole.”

The demonstrators have been careful to note that theirs is a nonpartisan struggle. In interviews, they say they don’t want to interject hot-button political topics, such as the cost of subsidizing home building in West Bank settlements or for haredi Orthodox families, at the risk of alienating would-be supporters of their cause.

At a protest outside the Knesset on July 24, Itay Gottler, who heads the student union at the Hebrew University, spoke of a popular movement that encompasses all segments of society.

“This is a struggle that involves secular people, the ultra-Orthodox, religious, Arabs, young people and students,” he said. “This is the struggle of the people.”

Amy Teibel of the Associated Press contributed to this report.