Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tel Aviv's Tahrir Square

Israeli protests over soaring housing prices echo demonstrations elsewhere in region.
By Michal Levertov
  • A protester at Tel Aviv’s tent protest. The sign reads, “I don’t have a house for him.” (Photo: Yossi Gurvitz)
    A protester at Tel Aviv’s tent protest. The sign reads, “I don’t have a house for him.” (Photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

Meytal Cohen Akerman, 29, stands in a beautiful bridal gown by a cardboard box on which she and her husband, Daniel, 42, have written “Home Sweet Home”.

The newlywed couple, both graphic designers from the town of Ra'anana, are amongst thousands camping in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild avenue to protest Israel’s soaring property prices and rents.

Despite being educated professionals and distinctly middle class, Meytal and Daniel feel they are sliding into poverty.

“And it frightens us,” Meytal added. “Out of 45,000 Israeli couples who got married last year, 35,000 were unable to buy a flat.”

In what some commentators have called linked to the mass, social-media driven demonstrations elsewhere in the region, a new movement of mass protest has swept the country in recent weeks.

As many as 30,000 protesters gathered in a central Tel Aviv square on July 23 to demonstrate against unaffordable housing, with police reporting 43 arrests after protestors attempted to block traffic intersections.

The following day, the front page of the popular Israeli paper Ma’ariv - in a reference to the nickname of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu – described the rally as “Bibi's Tahrir”.

Two days later, another encampment in the south of Tel Aviv was evacuated by the municipality after it was deemed to be illegal. This was followed by protests in Jerusalem in which the entrance to the Israeli parliament was temporarily blocked. Five people were arrested and policeman was injured during their evacuation.

Activists also blocked major roads in Haifa, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva and there have been calls on Facebook for a general strike to be held on August 1 as part of the movement.

The mounting surge of protest began when a 25-year-old video editor, Daphne Leef, received an eviction notice for her rented flat in Tel Aviv.

Realising she would be unable to afford the rent for another apartment, Leef launched a Facebook page urging people to join her in a protest camp on Rothschild avenue, at the heart of Tel Aviv.

Her move followed a previous wave of civil protest initiated via Facebook last month, in which an online call to boycott overpriced cottage cheese - an Israeli staple – sparked huge media and government attention.

Within a couple of weeks, the Rothschild encampment’s dense line of tents spread from the central Habima square – which the organisers of the protest nicknamed “Our own Tahrir square” – to Allenby street, 15 blocks away.

Tent cities were also established in every big city in Israel, as well as in smaller towns, and the movement even got its own popular protests songs, spread on Facebook and YouTube – including one called “Revolution”, by musician Noy Alush.

Julian Feder, 29, a friend of Daphne Leef and like her a video editor, was among the initiators of the protest. He said that Tahrir square had definitely inspired their move, “although the main inspiration came from the Spanish model of Puerta del Sol's tent city” – a Madrid protest earlier this year which pushed for political reforms.

Feder said he had posted a link to a Facebook page for the Isreali tent city on a Facebook page for the Tahriri protests, “but no-one has contacted us. On the other hand, no one erased the link, which is an encouragement.”

Unlike the Arab protests, he added, no-one was putting their life on the line by demonstrating, and those involved were calling for a deep social change rather than the fall of the government.

And despite the sympathy that some Israeli protesters had towards the Arab Spring, any overt affiliation with them would make their own movement into a “political struggle: and with the current government and the prevailing atmosphere, this might actually delegitimise our protest”, he added.

So far, establishment figures have been careful to express sympathy with the protesters' demands.

Former IDF chief-of-staff Dan Halutz, who resigned following huge criticism of the 2006 Lebanon war and who is now said to be preparing to enter politics, said the movement was a positive development.

“The encouraging side of this is that young people are taking things more seriously than in the past,” he said, while declining to note any link between the Arab Spring and the Israeli protest.

“Let's not exaggerate. However, a mass movement that bears a message of change can indeed be powerful. And if that crowd knows how to execute its powers in a manner that is both polite and steadfast, without the use of violence, it will be able to bring about a change.”

Yossi Yonnah, a professor in the education department of Ben Gurion university, said that he saw a link between the Arab uprisings elsewhere in the region and the protests in Israel.

“We don't live in a vacuum, and events around us influence Israeli society,” he said.

But many Israelis may have an ambivalent attitude towards the link between their protests movements and those in the region, he added.

“On one hand, the civilians in totalitarian regimes have a stronger cause for struggle, as the repression there is much greater, so many here would ask how can we even compare protest within a democratic society to that in Syria or Egypt,” he said.

“On the other hand, if people decided to express their discontent in such dictatorships, then it should be done so much more in a country that claims to be a democracy.

“Nevertheless, it may be that such an influence would be denied by protesters, simply because of a traditional position Israeli society holds - which is that there is nothing that Arab society can teach us.”

Michal Levertov is a journalist in Tel Aviv.  

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