Housing Protests to Continue Amid Tension Over PM's Plan for Students

Marches planned Saturday night in cities throughout Israel; Rally against Boycott Law also scheduled that night.

Leaders of the student unions and tent protests announced Tuesday that they will continue their protests, even amid tension between the two groups over offers made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to improve student housing.

Marches are planned for Saturday night throughout the country, primarily in the cities where dozens of tents have gone up - Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Ashdod.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 people took part yesterday in a rally at Gan Ha'em Park in Haifa, with young people blocking the roads. Police arrested seven demonstrators.

Three activists also were arrested in Be'er Sheva for blocking roads.

The organizers of the Rothschild Boulevard tent city in Tel Aviv expect thousands of participants, although they are concerned that a rally against the Boycott Law scheduled for Saturday night will lower their numbers.

On the Facebook page for the Rothschild tent city, organizers are calling for unity - and for everyone, including those protesting the Boycott Law, "to remind the elected officials that we are here."

The tension between the two groups could be felt in the statements they delivered yesterday.

The tent city protesters spoke out sharply against the prime minister: "Today Mr. Netanyahu remembered that he has a little thing like the people of Israel," said Daphni Leef, a tent city leader. "We weren't born yesterday; what Netanyahu is offering is fraud." But the students' statement began by welcoming efforts to put together a housing plan, calling it a "historic achievement" and noting that "since 2001 no such attractive package has been offered to students."

Still, National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli said the students would not stop fighting.

"The right to a roof over one's head should be assured to everyone in Israel, whether they are students or not," Shmuli said.

Tel Aviv University Student Union head Ran Livneh spoke out more sharply against Netanyahu's plan, calling it "an attempt to bribe the student unions throughout Israel."

"We will not accept the things we accepted throughout the years; we will not stick a knife in anyone's back," he said.

The student unions announced they would continue blocking traffic and taking over construction sites and abandoned buildings.

Both groups said they were "not alone in the struggle," and that their protest was important for all segments of the population.

The various groups in the Jerusalem tent protest issued a joint statement following Netanyahu's press conference, hinting that the prime minister's intent was to split the protesters by offering solutions to students: "The steps the prime minister announced are not enough to solve the housing problems in Israel. The planned reforms to the Planning and Building Law and the housing committees preserve the failing, anti-social policies," the statement said.

The statement also said the plan would make an end-run around planning institutions and would mean a lack of regulatory oversight.

"We're happy the prime minister woke up and proposed practical steps, but a more comprehensive policy is needed," the statement said. "We will not let our struggle be split by populist offers to the students." Also yesterday, leadership of The University of Haifa met with heads of the student union, telling them that land owned by the university would be immediately allocated for student dorms. They said the university would renovate an existing building as a dormitory and provide housing for a total of 600 students.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai said yesterday that he welcomed Netanyahu's housing plan. Yishai said he had warned two years ago of a housing shortage because no land had been put on the market for a decade.

Speaking during a tour of the Pri Galil canning factory in the Upper Galilee town of Hatzor, Yishai said, "Land should be marketed in the outlying areas at no cost. An impossible situation has been created here whereby a young couple cannot buy an apartment. Now with the prime minister's plan, young people can stand on their own two feet."

Hatzor saw its first protest tents go up yesterday, with four local young people setting up camp at the entrance to Hatzor. One of them, Shaul Kabasa, said, "Hatzor has the image of a town where you can buy an apartment cheaply, but unfortunately that's no longer so."

Kabasa said no new apartments had been built in Hatzor for the past 36 years. A four-room flat costs NIS 770,000, and a top-floor apartment costs NIS 1.3 million, which he called "insane for Hatzor."

"How can I, as a young father of one with another on the way, working as a nurse, afford such an apartment?" he asked.

The director general of Tel Hai Academic College, Yossi Avrahami, also praised Netanyahu's plan. However, he added that land in outlying districts was already free, "and so the government should help build student dorms with earmarked funds."

Thirty-five tents have gone up in the Kiryat Shmona area, mostly on the Tel Hai campus.

Silvan Shalom - vice prime minister and minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee - visited the tent protest in Kiryat Shmona yesterday.

"I believe this is an authentic protest, despite radical groups trying to become involved; it is a unique protest mainly because of those taking part," he said.

Meanwhile, the head of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, Aharon Valensi, called on the surrounding kibbutzim not to raise the cost of rent and services for students living in their communities.

"Think about our children, most of whom can't buy or rent an apartment for a reasonable price," he said.