Israel rocked by the biggest protest in its history

Posted Aug 6, 2011 by Stephen Morgan
Tel Aviv was paralyzed tonight by a sea of demonstrators matching anything seen in the nearby Arab Revolutions. Figures are coming in from various sources. One estimate says that as much as 1-in-7 of the population took to the streets.
File photo: People attending human rights rally  in Israel.
File photo: People attending human rights rally in Israel.
Protesters called for it to be “the mother of all demonstrations,” with more than a quarter of a million people hitting the streets Saturday night in Tel Aviv to protest the unbearable social and economic burdens facing the country. A volcano of social discontent has erupted blowing apart social relations in Israel, which leaves many thinking that things may never be the same again.
Israel's Ynet news called it “the largest socioeconomic protest in the state of Israel's history,” The Tahrir-style tent city protests, which started thru Facebook two weeks ago, and began with just a few dozen protesters, has now spiraled into a gigantic social movement, the likes of which has never been seen in Israel before.
On July 30, the demonstrations reached 150,000, but today that number more than doubled. Ynet It's estimated that 275,000 took to the streets in Tel Avi and 350,000 in the country as a whole. Other papers such as Haaretz are corroborating the figures, which are astonishing in a country of only 7 million people. In proportion to the population, last night's demonstration is double the size of the biggest protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square and would be equal to a march of 3 million people in Paris or over 12 million in Washington.
The protests additionally forced Israeli Railways to shut operations down due to overcrowding, which meant thousands weren't able to get to Tel Aviv. Other demonstrations took place across the country in cities such as Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Shomna, Tzemach, Petach Tikva, Ashkelon, HaOgen, Dimona, Hadera and Rosh Pina and even the resort of Eliat.
Ynet reported that the Israeli Student Union leader, Itzik Shmuli spoke to the crowds saying "never before in the state of Israel did so many people come together to change the future.” Haaretz quoted him with a statement, which perhaps summed up the moment best, "Young people of Israel, our time has come."
Haaretz said the protesters chanted, "the people demand social justice" and "an entire generation demands a future." It remarked that, with regard to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, signs hung on streets, which read "Resign, Egypt is here."
Netanyahu and the Likud government are getting hammered by the political fallout. Israeli blog +972 reported a poll conducted for Israel's Channel 10 TV last Monday,which showed that a massive 88 percent of Israelis support the protests and even 85 percent of Netanyahu’s Likud voters find the protests justified.
Following a Smith Research poll for the Jerusalem Post , people questioned said that if the protest movement created a new “socioeconomic party” it would win 20 seats in the Israeli Parliament-the Knesset. To get an idea of what this means, the current governing party, Likud has 27 seats, the opposition party Kadima 28, which would mean the “protest party” would be the third biggest in the country.
The protests are shaking the political establishment. An attempt by Netanyahu to appease the protesters Aug. 3 with the passing of a bill on housing only infuriated the public further. Al Jazeera reported that “Activists from Israel's social protest movement have reacted furiously after parliament passed a housing bill that they say will favour the wealthy and endanger the environment.” People accused the government of passing legislation which would do nothing for them and only benefit companies building luxury homes.
Al Jazeera went on to quote Yotam Brum, a student organiser, who said, "they carry on and pass a law which is not acceptable to us, a law which will benefit big capital and not the citizens of Israel ... We shall continue to escalate our struggle until Netanyahu and his government understand that they serve the people and not the tycoons."
The youth who began their housing protests have been joined by parents demonstrating with their kids in push chairs over the insupportable costs of raising children, especially the cost of kindergartens and nurseries. Disabled people have been demanding their rights in protests in Jerusalem and most sectors of society from young and old, professionals and workers, secular and religious have come together, in ways similar to what we saw in Egypt.
The movement has also linked up with labor disputes, such as those of striking doctors and nurses and on Monday local authority workers struck in support of the protest movement. So great is the popular pressure that the chairman of the Histadrut national trade union federation, Ofer Eini, called on Friday for his members to join the protests. The Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying in an interview with Channel 2 news that the Histadrut leadership "represents 800,000 families from every echelon of society. If all these people come tomorrow in an organized fashion and join the protest, things will happen, and that's what I'm trying to initiate."
Although inspired by the Arab Revolutions and similar protests in Spain and Greece, in many ways the Israeli movement is developing further than other protests. Although not overthrowing a despot, it is becoming more focused and is developing a clear program. A national HQ with delegates from all over the country has also been set up. This week people delegated from the protesters drew up a list of demands, which they called “the "Guidelines for a new social-economical order." These included:
• Reducing indirect taxes
• Investing tax collection surpluses in citizens via state budget
• Canceling the national housing committees bill
• Increasing the Construction and Housing Ministry's budget on mortgages and rent, and increasing government aid
• Applying the Free Compulsory Education law to kids from age of three months
• Adding job posts, beds, medical equipment and infrastructures nationwide to match the OECD standard
• Halting privatization of welfare and mental health institutes
• Gradual cancellation of contractual work in the public sector
From the time of its establishment as a state, Israel has faced issues concerning the fate of the country and its conflicts with the Palestinians, and other Arab countries, have overshadowed the rich history of social protest which belongs to the Jewish people. They were once recognized for their role at the forefront of nearly every revolutionary movement in Europe in the last hundred years. Perhaps, we are now seeing the rebirth of that spirit and that, in turn, may have far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, perhaps, just as much as the Arab revolutions have.