Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities to protest against the ever increasing cost of living, in a big show of force by the a movement that is sweeping the country.
About 300,000 mostly middle class Israelis marched through the streets in central Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, waving flags, beating drums and chanting: "Social justice for the people".
Some held signs reading "People before profits," "Rent is not a luxury," and "Israel is too dear."
In Jerusalem, 20,000 protesters marched toward Binyamin Netanyahu’s, Israel’s Prime Minister’s, residence.
Sizeable demonstrations were also noted throughout the country by the Haaretz news agency, including 5,000 in Modi’in, 3,000 in Kiryat Shmona, 1,000 in Hod Hasharon, 1,000 in Eilat, more than 500 in Ashkelon, and 200 in Dimona.
Demonstrations began last month with a few tents set up in an expensive part of Tel Aviv to protest real estate prices.
They quickly spread and tent encampments have sprouted up in other city centers, proving to be a real challenge to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Wide Range of Issues
The movement further expanded as protesters later joined in over a wide range of economic issues.
Young parents are protesting high child rearing bills, doctors are striking due to strenuous work conditions, teachers are marching over restrictive work contracts and others are in the streets over low salaries, ever increasing gas prices and food costs.
The popular demonstrations have snowballed into the biggest internal challenge yet for Netanyahu and his government. Polls released last week show his approval ratings have dropped while support for the protesters is high.
Netanyahu has announced a series of bureaucratic reforms including freeing up land for construction and offering tax breaks.
But the reforms have only increased anger in the streets with protesters complaining the measures would have no real affect on them.
"The prime minister hasn’t told us anything," Stav Shafir, one of the protest leaders, said.
"We are going to keep protesting, we want solutions, we want real willingness by the government to work with the people and answer our demands, until then we will be here."
Roni Sofer, an aide to Netanyahu, said the prime minister "understands the severity of the problems and believes there are serious solutions, but actions need to be taken responsibly."
Sofer said Netanyahu is appointing a team of ministers on Sunday "to provide a working plan by September".
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said it was too early to know how many were protesting an hour after they began Saturday night.
Israeli media showed streets packed with people. A similar protest last weekend drew an estimated crowd of 150,000 nationwide.
Many observers viewed Saturday night’s protest as a test to see if it was gaining momentum or fizzling out.
The protests appear to be inspired in part by unrest in neighboring Arab countries.
High Poverty Rate
Israel has one of the highest poverty rates and income gaps in the developed world, and prices for homes, food and fuel have risen in recent months.
For middle class Israelis, the high cost of living makes owning property impractical if not virtually impossible and causes many working Israelis to live in debt from paycheck to paycheck.
The average Israeli salary is about $2,500 per month while teachers and social workers typically earn less than $2,000 a month.
Rent on a modest three bedroom apartment in central Jerusalem can cost upward of $1,500 per month and more in Tel Aviv.
A standard, 100-square-meter apartment can easily top $600,000 in modest middle class neighborhoods in metropolitan centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and $200,000 to $300,000 in second-tier areas.
Critics have pointed out that the young protest leaders appear to be unfocused and unorganised but this past week they joined ranks and spelled out their demands.
The list includes affordable housing, reduction of high Value Added Tax rates, free day care for children, raising salaries for health care workers and other benefits.
(Agencies via Al Jazeera)