Jul 222011

Israel Starting To Feel A Touch Of Arab Spring?

A period of relative calm on the security front has given way to rising frustrations among about long-ignored economic problems. The result has been a series of online – and on the streets – protests.

Tel Aviv, Israel

Tel Aviv, Israel

TEL AVIV – Along Rothschild Boulevard, the most urbane thoroughfare in Tel Aviv, hundreds of students and young couples have been camping out since last week in an ongoing protest for improved housing conditions. The atmosphere is friendly. Neighbors bring the demonstrators food. Artists parade to show their support.

“The 18-square-meter-basement I live in doesn’t have a window and my rent is at $975 a month. Is that fair?” says Oren Sabiani, one of the leaders of the protest, which was organized via Facebook. “People are tired of being in the red and of not being able to make plans for the future. They are tired of seeing the government only interested in what happens in Iran rather than in the daily lives of its own people.”

Protestors and their tents are popping up in other Israeli cities as well. And they appear to have the support of the press. Columnist Ben Caspit, who writes for the daily Maariv, laments that “the government invested billions of dollars in the development of the settlements, and neglected to develop the country itself.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly understood that Israel’s “indignados” – as the local press has taken to calling them – could be a political danger. The original indignados rose to prominence earlier this year in Spain. The prime minister received some of the Israeli protestors this past Monday. With television cameras rolling, he promised to speed up administrative procedures for future public housing programs. Netanyahu acknowledged, nevertheless, that his efforts aren’t likely to produce immediate results.

According to Linda, a student at the University of Tel Aviv, “politicians are falling over each other to keep us in the fold. But we won’t be fooled again. Our fight will last as long as it takes because we have nothing to lose.”

Dairy fight

Social movements of this kind are rare in Israel. The last major movement took place between 1969 and 1974, when the Sephardim (Jews hailing from the Mediterranean countries) created the Israel Black Panthers organization and protested violently against the Ashkenazi Establishment (European Jews) who they claimed kept them in poverty.

These past few weeks, however, Israeli citizens have thrown away their legendary inertia and decided to launch some large-scale actions. In early July, organized again via Facebook, tens of thousands of customers participated in a boycott of the country’s three main dairy products companies, which critics accuse of artificially raising cottage cheese price. The boycott also hurt big retail chains.

The government responded by promising to lower prices by encouraging competition and by allowing European dairy products to be imported in the country. The fact that the government reacted at all was hailed as a major victory for the boycotters. The leaders of both the dairy industry and major supermarkets enjoy close ties with political leaders.

Emboldened by the dairy protest, frustrated Israelis quickly put together other Facebook pages complaining about the high price of diapers, powdered milk and even the price of the new Samsung smartphone, which was reduced significantly overnight.

“It’s not surprising to see these movements developing now, because the security situation is rather calm,” says Keren Marciano, an economics reporter. “People don’t feel as threatened by the outside world right now, so they begin to focus on what had previously been left aside, that is, problems within the country. A wave of revolt has begun to sweep through Israel…and it’s not likely to subside any time soon.”

Read the original article in French

By Serge Dumont
LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch

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