Municipalities across Israel shut down on Monday as workers observed a general strike called by the Local Authorities Union to support a growing movement for social justice that has swept Israel in the last two weeks
“We have called for a one-day strike,” said Shlomo Buhbut, president of the Local Authorities Union to AFP, the French media equivalent to the AP in the US. “The municipalities are closed to the public and rubbish collectors will not be emptying rubbish bins. As representatives of the municipalities and the local authorities, we represent the whole population so we cannot stand by with our arms crossed doing nothing while the entire population is demonstrating for social justice. If the government does nothing, we don’t rule out the possibility of taking additional measures.”
Buhbut was talking about a series of demonstrations and direct actions that have taken place recently to protest the lack of affordable housing, rising consumer prices, and stagnant wages.
The movement began two weeks ago when a handful of protestors set up a tent city in an affluent section of Tel Aviv to protest a new housing law that fails to address a growing problem in Israel–a lack of affordable housing. The tent city started with six tents but grew to 400 in a number of days.
The tent city started to attract attention and support for the protestors began to grow. Supporters include secular and religious Jews as well as Jews and Arabs. On Saturday, more than 150,000 people demonstrated in the streets of at least ten Israeli cities demanding affordable housing, a more robust welfare state, increased wages, and an end to the steadily increasing cost of living in Israel.
As Israel has implemented neo-liberal economic policies that enhance the power of the country’s capitalist and let the market establish prices, workers have found it harder to live a decent life. “Over the last five years, the average income in Israel has increased by 17% and food prices by 25%. Water rates have gone up 40% and gasoline by 23%. The average apartment price has gone up 55% and rent by 27%.” said Sever Plocker, a financial journalist for the Los Angeles Times.
The final straw came when the Israeli Knesset passed a National Housing Committees law that did little to address the problem of affordable housing, but instead made it easier for developers to build high-end and commercial buildings. “The National Housing Committees (law) will do more harm than good,” said Gil Gan-Mor, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Instead, we will continue to see the large land reserves in the center of Israel turning into sky-scraper neighborhoods for wealthy residents only.”
Soon after the law was passed the tent city was erected. While some in the media have characterized the protest as being driven by Facebook postings, Haaretz.com reports that the protests are the fruit of long-term organizing by various youth groups like the Hashomer Hatzair and the leftist Koach Laovdim – Democratic Workers’ Organization, a new general trade union founded in 2007 that unites workers from a variety of industries and nationalities.
The demonstrations have taken a decidedly anti-capitalist identity. According to a +972, a blog of reporting and commentary from Israel and the Palestinian authorities, the main rallying cry of the demonstration on Saturday was “The people! Want! Social justice” and the chants of the demonstrators included “a generous dose” of “Bibi (Prime Minister Netanyahu) go home,” as well as anti-capitalism, pro-welfare state slogans, all laced with dripping sarcasm along the lines of: ‘The market is free, but we’re slaves’.”
The crisis has become so severe that Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Poland and pledged to meet with representatives of the protestors to address their concerns.
In the meantime, the Israeli national labor federation Histadrut said it supported the overall goals of the demonstrations, but so far has resisted throwing its full weight behind the movement. Forcing the Prime Minister into direct negotiations with the protestors was an attempt to “humiliate the prime minister, which is unacceptable,” said Histadrut head Ofer Eini.