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By Carmen Rengel / Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza

  • 30,000 Israelis set up camps in about twenty cities to demand a decrease in housing and basic product prices
  • Salaries have gone up 1% in seven years, while rentals have gone up 250%. This disparity forces them to live with their parents
  • The market is growing because of the demand of wealthy Jews who want a place to spend several weeks a year and because of speculation from millionaires from all over the world, especially in Tel Aviv

Campsite on Rotshchild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv. July 2011 /Activestills

The indignant protest in Israel is unstoppable: 150,000 people took to the street on Saturday night to demand a radical change in national politics, that prevents the middle class from maintaining a wealthy upper class that shines and gives out the wrong image of the country, that of a land of milk and honey. 30,000 Israelis live in camps spread throughout about twenty cities, in a fight that will not settle for partial wins. Sick of being “exploited”, what started out as a minor movement has become, in 17 days, a popular tide that sweeps everybody away. Even in Zara you can see support signs.Their tenacity has lowered Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity rate from 51% to 32%. That is why he has hurried to announce 10,000 flats for young people tearing down walls in government compounds that today are office buildings, or indirect taxes reductions, or aid for young people to move to under populated cities. Yesterday, he even announced the creation of a special ministerial team to offer solutions. It is not enough for the streets, who today have begun the calls for a strike in about thirty towns, who have shut down city offices and who refuse to clean up the streets and pick up the garbage. Even the administration is on strike. The trembling has reached the Government, with the resignation of the general Financial director, the man who estimated the cost of giving an answer to the citizens’ demands at 12.000 million Euros. Netanyahu’s coalition with the extreme right and the ultra orthodox is not in danger, but the opposition is taking advantage of the cause: opposition leader Tzipi Livni has demanded the Parliament to keep working, even though on Thursday it should go on holidays until October. “Now it is time to fight”, she says. Here is the account of the birth, demands and yearnings of Israel’s “indignant”.

Message from Israel’s 15M to Spain’s 15M

On the night of the 14th of July, Tel Aviv was on fire. Thursday in Israel’s liveliest city, the beach terraces packed with tourists, a huge traffic jam because of a Netanyahu rally and a Moby concert… In the middle of all that coming and going, heat, music, and burnt gas, a small heart, made up of tents, inflatable mattresses, and lunch boxes with hummus, salad and fried chicken started to beat. On Rothschild Boulevard, a strolling area, half grass, half earth, Israel’s first indignant camped out, a group of young people called through social networks willing to protest about the country’s middle class biggest problem: impossible access to housing. Dahpni Leef, a 25 year old college student, was the one who started the chain: a month ago she was notified that she had to leave her Tel Aviv flat

Evening assembly in Jerusalem, by the wall, next to the Old Town

because the whole building was being demolished to build a new one. After three years in the same apartment, she started to look for a new one and realized how much the prices had rocketed, both for purchase and rent. And she got mad. She called those closest to her to a protest that was going to last one weekend. Today more than 10,000 Israelis of all ages and conditions camp out in no less than 20 cities, in the South, the North, the coast, the desert, of Jewish or Arab majority. Last Saturday, joining in a great march in Tel Aviv, they managed to summon more than 30,000 people under two slogans with a taste of Spain’s 15M: “Democracy takes to the streets” and “The Government against the people-The people against the Government”.

The dozen or so arrests that took place after midnight could not spoil the fun. The Prime Minister’s cabinet is looking for solutions and a workgroup has been reinforced in the Knesset, the Parliament. In a country in which apathy fuels almost all of its problems, the nerve of the young people who are pulling all of Israel forward entails a deep immersion on the concept of popular democracy, an awakening that reminds the people that they left decision-making in the hands of the rulers, and that time has come to share it. Simple civilian duty.
Israel is enduring the crisis better than other countries: unemployment is barely 5.8% (186,000, according to official data from April), the economy is growing at a 6% annual rate, national technology companies add up in New York’s NASDAQ more than the whole European continent (it is the second major power, behind the US) and it is the nation that invests the biggest percentage of its GDP on research and development (4.5%, 1.3 more points than Japan and 1.8 more than the US). But the average citizen does not take part in the macro data’s feast: the price of the shopping basket is between 15% and 18% higher than the OECD countries average and poverty rate is 20%. Somehow or other, people manage, go out for coffee and get away for a couple of days to Eilat or Galilee. But only a few can afford a house. “We gave up the idea of buying a long time ago, but now it is impossible to even rent”, complains Kobi Skaat, 26 year old translator. “Tel Aviv, my city, is the most expensive one in the Middle East since three years ago. They don’t develop social housing projects, but build luxury blocks for European and North American Jews who want a home in Eretz Israel. Then they come for a week every year and close down the house. Or buy them as an investment, to speculate. That way, the prices are so high and no one can have access to such a basic right”, he tells from the camp in the Israeli capital, where there is a mixture of Zionist movements with pacifists, environmentalists, gay activists, communists and even ultra orthodox Jews from the Bnei Brak neighborhood. Everyone suffers here.

According to the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS), since 2008 house payments have gone up between 17% and 20% in Tel Aviv and up to 40% in Beer Sheva or Haifa. In Jerusalem the increase is smaller (13%) because of the policy to expand the municipality and subsidize settlements, in an attempt to consolidate Israeli power over the triply-holy city. Even in the most remote and worst hit suburbs, prices have gone up at least 12% in the last year. Close to 70% of Israelis’ monthly income must go to housing and 35% if they are sharing a rent. The belts around the big cities have been reinforced, but even there prices are “ridiculously high”, Kobi explains. In Jerusalem, for example, they pay 400,000 Euros for a three-room apartment with no elevator. “It’s impossible to make it. I’m a lawyer –says Boaz Levi- and my friends also have liberal professions: they are journalists, economists, small businessmen… All of us, at the end of the month, have in our bank accounts 10 shekels in the red, 10 shekels in the black [about 2 Euros]. We are a completely in debt generation. My parents might be paying for a home all their lives, but I will need my grandchildren to follow up to get rid of the bank”, he complains. Boaz still lives with his parents and three siblings in the city of Holon, south of Tel Aviv. He has tried to move out twice, but in the end his salary could not cover everything. And he is already 31. It is a widespread problem throughout the world, that reliance on the parents, but even more in Israel, where people leave the Army at

A group of indignant takes a nap in the Tel Aviv gathering /Activestills

20 (the girls) or 21 (the boys), ready to get into college or start working. The last thing they want is to move in back home, after an unusual maturity acquired by the uniform and their experiences. That is why here there are so many college students who are married or even have kids, because life speeds up.

An average salary in Israel is around 1400 Euros (400 less than in Spain) and the minimum wage is 776. However, official data shows that at least 27% of the population really ea

rns less than thatminimum. If wages have gone up 1% since 2004, rentals have gone up 250%. Zero proportionality. In May, the Housing

Ministry approved 20,000 Euro subsidies to buy housing in city outskirts, in small towns, but the law has not come into effect yet and the money has not been released. Also, Hadash communists have forced the Executive to shorten the terms of execution and permits, processes that carry remarkable additional costs and delays. But still there is another serious problem: new buildings must mostly be constructed on public soil, not private one, which stops the hatching of construction and the cut in prices, simply because of competence. The Government wants to lower those aims (80% on public soil) except in Arab cities, precisely the ones who have the most housing problems because of limits to construction land and lower purchasing power (-15%  compared to the nationwide average). It is not enough, says spokeswoman Dahpni Leef: “We demand the intervention of local and national governments to stop the rise in prices, we demand that they lower rental taxes, especially for young people, and that they make building contractors assign part of their property development to affordable housing”, she says, reading some of the conclusions reached in the tents. The same day the camp was called, 6,900 more houses were put out to tender (300 of them in illegal settlements). “It’s just a patch, we need more than 30,000”, answers Dahpni.

Martha Alcalay with her parents, Moshe and Miriam, and their dog Motek in Haifa. /Martha Alcalay

Martha Alcalay has taken indignation lessons in Jerusalem and has gone to Haifa to continue the fight at home. She fervently reads the conclusions from Puerta del Sol in Madrid, goes over videos of the demonstrations. She relates to their motives: “Ours is not a fight for housing, but for dignity. We are like slaves. Everything goes up but people have been earning the same for three or four years. Why does the middle class have the obligation of maintaining those higher up? Big businessmen have taken away 50,000 million dollars in pension and retirement funds. I don’t want to pay that anymore, when I can’t even move out of my parents’ house”, she points out. She is 29, studied to be a teacher and worked in an academy until days ago. It has barely been a few months, so she goes back to living with Moshe and Miriam, her parents. And with their dog, Motek. “If it wasn’t because I took the groceries from home, and my mother’s stews, I don’t know what I would have done”, she goes on. The things is that Israelis also struggle to fill the fridge every month: it kicked off last year with a rise in bread (almost 7%) and gas prices (the same) and they have already gone through a national boycott on cottage cheese, widely used in local cuisine, that has gone up 70% so far this year; consumer pressure has forced distributors to lower prices by 25%. “We have grown tired of this scandal”, Martha sums up. Writer and TV host Yair Lapid admits that the outbreak caused by housing prices and recession is the cry of a society that was asleep and that finally becomes aware that it has left politics in the hands of people far from real democracy for too long. “The problem with Israel is silence. We remain silent and serve as reservists, we pay for private lessons for our children because education is not good enough, we remain silent when we confront our parents to ask them for money to pay the rent. That is enough”, he pointed out last week in his column in Yediot Aharonot newspaper. Martha points out this article as the quintessence of her philosophy.

In spite of the general unrest, patience is what Rod Hulday, mayor of Tel Aviv, asks of those camped out he talks to. He ends up looking bad because of a couple reproaches he does not have an answerto. Like the one made by Ruth Kessel, biology student. She lives in Ramat Gam, an area close to the capital but surrounded by industrial

Tel Aviv, seen from the Arab neighborhood of Jaffa. It is, since three years ago, the most expensive city in the Middle East.

parks and innovation centers. Her father, telecommunications expert, has been able to pay with a lot of effort the house the six members of the family live in. She has “neither patience nor hope”. “I don’t spend any money on rent because I live with my parents, but I spend three and a half hours every day in public transport, coming and going to campus. Connections are awful and no one from the authorities strengthens the service. There are no fast roads. How do they want us to leave Tel Aviv then?”, she wonders. The Government promised a subway line to this metropolitan area 40 years ago, but nothing has been done. Israel lacks a good railway system: there were other priorities when the State was born and later, as years passed, came the fear of massive attacks. Result: daily chaos on the roads.

She went for the feat, she started working in a huge Zara in downtown Tel Aviv and found a shared apartment. That attempt at independence did not last long. “I had to pay 3,000 shekels for the flat and 3,000 more for tuition fees (a little over 600 Euros)”, she recalls. She found a cheaper room, but the owner made her hire a lawyer and a notary to sign the contract, as well as four months paid in advance. “How was I going to pay that? My family lives on only one salary and I work part-time”. Most of Israel’s indignant denounce the arbitrary nature of the contract conditions: they can ask for anything and the owner always has the upper hand. There are even “admission committees”, groups of neighbors who have agreed to examine the would-be tenants and demand all sorts of things: from marriage certificates to calligraphy tests to take them to an expert, as Haaretz newspaper has revealed.

It is not only young people who are going through difficulties. Edith Aronofsky is 83 and lives in Jerusalem. A US citizen, her family got away soon from the Holocaust that threatened them in the Netherlands. She pays 1,100 Euros a month for an 80 square meter flat. Which she owns. “I could have stayed in Boston, but I wanted to die in the land of my parents. What I didn’t think was that it was going to take up all of my savings”, she comments. She has done the math: her little cushion added to her pension is enough for “ten or eleven years at most”. “If I live longer, I won’t be able to pay the bank”, she insists jokingly. Since the first time she saw her apartment on a drawing board, in 2004, to 2009, when se decided to buy it, monthly payments had gone up 60%. Last year a friend’s granddaughter, who had come from France to study Hebrew, helped her pay. “But living with an old woman is no way to live… Now she is in a small twenty-square meters room, with no kitchen, expensive but intimate”, she says, laughing around. Edith has walked several times to the Jerusalem camp, set up at the feet of the wall, from her home in the Agron neighborhood. She reads signs, envies the young people’s vitality, encourages them in their battle. “They do what they have to do. We have to fight”.

Edith Aronofsky, in her Jerusalem home

Two months a year, this good natured and energetic elderly woman leaves her flat empty to go visit relatives in the US. In her case, it is a logical closing, but it is almost an exception in a city with 9,000 empty houses, ghost apartments owned by foreigners and only occupied a few weeks every year, in the summer or during the big Jewish holidays. Merav Cohen, city councilor for Yerushalmim party, reports these figures, admitted by the Jerusalem Town Hall. “The mayor wrote a letter campaign, asking people to rent out their homes. His goal was to convince 500 of them. That was a year ago and nobody has given us the success or failure rate of the initiative”, he complains. He feels that there are three main obstacles for energizing housing policy: “the Government’s attempt to maximize their profit with housing on their own land”, “the lack of social aids for earnings or for the first home” and the “absurd opposition of the politicians to building highrises” (in Israel it is somewhat extraordinary to see blocks higher than six floors). Awakening Jerusalem, a lawyers’ association Cohen has worked in for years giving advice to students and young families, denounces that “the base” of the population has no support, while in areas such as the south of Galilee a city is being built on the foundations of a small village, Harish, where only Haredis (ultra orthodox Jews) are going to live. 150,000 neighbors are expected, with housing aids, self-employment subsidies, public schools, roads and good water allocation… “They will barely have to pay any taxes, it’s discriminatory”, he insists.

At the same time as the protests, the JIMS has published another report that reveals that Israelis pay and average 75% more housing taxes that the rest of inhabitants of other OECD countries. These taxes make up 9.5% of real estate revenues for the State of Israel, compared to 5.4% in OECD countries. The feared arnona, the housing tax, raises rentals by 200 or 300 Euros a month. “We are 121st in the world rank in efficiency to grant building permits, and 147th in efficiency obtaining property rights after buying a house… In this case it is not the world crisis nor the markets nor the rich countries’ housing bubbles’ fault, it is the Government’s”, says Yarden Gazit, author of the report. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blames his predecessor (and biggest opponent), Kadima party. “Nobody is working on this subject more than I am”, he said last week. On Sunday, during the Council of Ministers, he admitted that the prices are inadmissible and promised a “total reform” of the housing system. He insisted that the commissions created to listen to the indignant “will work in the diagnosis” and that he will get it right with the changes in construction rules and in aids for neighborhoods far from the city center. Up to this day, none of that is, in practice, a fact.

A construction worker, on a site in Har Homa, an illegal settlement in East Jerusalem.

As Gazit explains, the Government is “attached” to its benefits and the small steps it has taken are “slow and unsuccessful”. There is more and more housing and demand rises, a figure the authorities cling to to speak of the market’s health: the latest data, until May, says than in 2011 3,160 units have been demanded, 5% more than during the same period last year, especially in the downtown district. 16,250 houses were put up for sale, 10% more than a year back, but of those only 4,620 (28%) belonged to public initiative, “which is no guarantee for aids, subsidies or lower prices” but ”stops astronomical prices like those of private developments”. These figures, the expert insists, prove that the real estate market only moves for big fortunes, not for mere mortals. “There are more than seven million Jews outside of Israel who are interested in a home in their historical homeland. That is why sales are not halted, but the reality is that is has already been two years since the Government announced the mother of all land reforms to clear construction areas and lower prices, and all the projects to do it are paralyzed in the Knesset”, he says.

In the daily assemblies, these figures are repeated like a bitter mantra. Everybody attending suffers them themselves, but no one screams them out in anger. Order and manners prevail in these concentrations. That is why the police only goes by to watch over every once in a while. They ask peacefully, and peacefully they are treated. Speaking times are respectful, controlled, the desperate one and the theoretician, the progressive and the conservative, are allowed to speak. With gestures copied from 15M they vote, ask to speak, applaud. To clear the drowsiness away (heat and humidity make bad fighting companions) they make learning circles about economy, markets, fiscal matters… “It is so they do not mistake us for fools. We have had enough with our politicians’ cowardly escape. If we act as state and we are the state, as we all prove in the Army, it is time for us to be it in full responsibility and for everything”. Paul Lubitch speaks. He is a saxophone player, 23 years old, and is cutting out press articles next to his shop in Jerusalem. Also the right-wing’s opinion pieces who speak of “demagogy” and of “lack of compromise with the country’s real issues” on the part of the indignant, those who accuse the protesters of” tarnishing Israel’s image because of a problem which is on its way to being solved”. Paul smiles and puts his glasses back in place. “Just once had I seen such strength and such life in my people: it was when they killed Isaac Rabin. I was so young I could not take part in it. Let us speak, let us scream. It is our time, time to prove that we are worthy of having a future and of calling ourselves citizens”. That is where they are. And they have no intention of stopping until they are victorious.