housing protest, Tel Aviv, mass rally, Sat 6/8/11
Israelis flooding Kaplan Street in the third week of cost-of-living protests in Tel Aviv on Saturday August 6, 2011. Photo by Tal Cohen
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More than 300,000 people took part in demonstrations across Israel last night to protest the high cost of living. The largest was in Tel Aviv, where an estimated 280,000 participated in one of the biggest demonstrations in Israeli history. The rally was held on Kaplan Street under the banner, "The people demand social justice." The extreme crowding prevented tens of thousands of people from getting anywhere near the stage, which was adjacent to the Kirya defense compound.

Chants of "The people demand social justice" echoed throughout the center of the city.

In contrast to the demonstrations of the past two weeks, last night there were no calls from the stage for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last night's demonstration also showed a much higher level of organization, as well as a greater presence of organized bodies such as youth movements and party workers. Most of the demonstrators, however, were not obviously associated with any specific organization.

Participants marched from Habima Square, adjacent to the tent encampment on Rothschild Boulevard, to Kaplan Street. Huge signs were put up along the marching route. One read, "Resign [in Arabic], Egypt is here." Another listed the names of many of the Knesset members who voted to approve the bill to expedite zoning procedures for new housing.

Performing at the rally were singers Rita, Yehudit Ravitz and Shlomi Artzi. The latter performed a song of his that has become associated with the protest, with the words, "Suddenly a man wakes in the morning and feels himself to be a people, and begins to walk."

Rita told the crowd: "An amazing thing is happening here. The desire to strengthen ourselves from within, to change priorities, broke the dam of our homes and took to the streets. Change will happen very slowly, but it's clear that it has started."

Ravitz added, "It's an astonishing time."

"We are not talking about a change of personnel at the top, we don't care about that," National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli told the crowd in Tel Aviv. "We're not demanding a change to the ruling coalition, we're demanding human economic policy that doesn't destroy people, that can see people's distress and that doesn't only crunch the numbers," Shmuli said.

Addressing Netanyahu, Shmuli said, "We're no longer embarrassed to say it's hard for us, we want a home to live in without being enslaved to it our entire lives, we want to work a decent job for a fair wage."

At least 28,000 people - nearly double last week's turnout - gathered in Jerusalem's Paris Square near the Prime Minister's residence after marching from the center of town. People from the tent encampment in Independence Park joined in as the protesters passed by.

Demonstrators called for social justice and sang chants including, "The cure for privatization is revolution," and "Bibi, I am strong, you can't softsoap me."

Author Meir Shalev, who was among the marchers, said: "The Israeli public's engagement with civil issues, not with Rachel's Tomb, the Iranian bomb and other diversionary issues, is a positive step. I am thrilled and optimistic."

Among the speakers in Jerusalem were the author (and Haaretz columnist ) Sayed Kashua, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein of Tzohar and singer Mosh Ben Ari.

An estimated 2,000 people - including students from Tel Hai Academic College, and residents of Kiryat Shmona and nearby kibbutzim and moshavim - briefly blocked Hametzudot junction in the north of the city before holding a rally during which Shlomi Shaban performed. Participants included Kiryat Shmona Mayor Nissim Malka and Upper Galilee Regional Council head Aharon Valenci.

Around 1,000 protesters yesterday blocked Hashomrim Junction in the Jezreel Valley. After holding a demonstration in the intersection, about 300 of the participants traveled to Tel Aviv to take part in the main demonstration.

The Jezreel Valley rally was organized by the student union of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, together with the tent encampments throughout the region, including those in Afula, Nazareth, Upper Nazareth, Kiryat Tivon, Yokne'am, Baka al-Garbiyeh and Migdal Ha'emek. This was the first joint event by all of the protesting groups in the area.

"This proves that the northern periphery is waking up," said the chairman of the college's student council, Ron Margalit. He said the rally's location was selected in order to remind the thousands of Israelis returning from weekend activities in the north that the north, too, is a difficult and expensive place to live. "The north is coming to life, and the protest encampments in the north are uniting for a better future for all. This struggle belongs to everyone. There are other places in this country besides 'the State of Tel Aviv.' There's us," Margalit said.

"We may be small, but we have a big heart," he said.

Ofer Carmel of Max Stern College expressed satisfaction with the "unity of the northern encampments," saying, "We came from throughout the valley area. The response gives us hope and we are preparing for the big demonstration next week of all the tent encampments in the north. The north is uniting," Carmel said.

Dozens of people from the Western Galilee - including Jewish, Arab and Druze activists from Nahariya and area communities who created tent encampments in the region - demonstrated on Friday afternoon at Kabri Junction.

Gadi Shabtai, one of the leaders of the protest in the region, said that even if large numbers did not attend the demonstration, it was clear that most Western Galilee residents support the protest. Shabtai said the issues go beyond the lack of housing and include the high cost of living overall, from the price of electricity to dairy products and other foods.

"We want to send a clear message that the State of Israel is not only the 'State of Tel Aviv' but also the periphery," Shabtai said.

Hundreds of Western Galilee residents also took part in last night's demonstration in Tel Aviv. Even Kfar Vradim, considered a wealthy community, chartered two buses to the rally. Local Council head Sivan Yehiel said: "We hope the battle will facilitate development of the Galilee and encourage young people to make their homes in the area."