JERUSALEM – At least a quarter of a million Israelis, fed up with the mounting cost of living, poured into the streets of the country’s major cities Saturday night to demand that their leaders address their plight – and demonstrating by their tremendous numbers that they will not go away.
The snowballing protest, which started out three weeks ago with a few 20-somethings pitching a tent encampment on a posh Tel Aviv street, has swiftly become a big headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by many middle-class Israelis as too friendly to big business. An aide to the Israeli leader said the government would soon devise a program to break the monopolies and cartels he blames for Israel’s economic ills.
Protesters appeared to have a more sweeping agenda on their minds. Traveling by car, bus, train and foot, some 230,000 Israelis, according to police estimates, descended on Tel Aviv to mount the largest social protest in the country’s history. Young, old and middle-age, they beat drums and waved flags, some chanting, “Social justice for the people” and “Revolution.”
Some held signs reading “People before profits,” “Rent is not a luxury” and “Working class heroes.” In Jerusalem, more than 30,000 protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s residence after streaming past some of the most expensive real estate in the city. Other protests took place in farther flung cities in Israel’s north and south, drawing about 10,000 people.
This third straight Saturday night of pocketbook protests was widely seen as a litmus test of the strength of the grass-roots revolt.
Similar demonstrations last week drew 150,000 people across this country of 7.7 million. Moshe Levy and his wife, Naama, are middle-age Jerusalemites who have a combined monthly income of almost $6,000 but are overdrawn at the bank by $9,000.
They said they don’t often go to demonstrations, “but I think this one is important,” Moshe Levy said.
He said he worries for his four children. “I hope their future will be better than mine,” he said.
Ehud Rotem, a 26-year-old student and bartender who also lives in Jerusalem, sees a bleak future for people of his generation.
“It’s hard to live in this country. We go to the army, work and pay high taxes and still don’t earn enough” to make ends meet, he said.
The protests initially targeted soaring housing prices, but quickly morphed into a sweeping expression of rage against an array of economic issues, including the cost of food, gasoline, education and wages.