Tel Aviv signed agreements on Sunday with a group of single mothers who had erected protest tents in a public park to provide them with assistance on the condition that they evacuate the site.
The protest began a week ago when Frida Najar, a single mother who had been waiting for public housing for four years, erected a tent and moved her four children into it to protest the lack of housing and rising rents in the city. Other women and their children joined her, and by this week there were 10 families living in seven tents in a park near Yefet Street in Jaffa.
The agreements were offered to the women on Sunday at a meeting they were invited to by Mishlama Jaffa, a Tel Aviv municipal authority that deals with issues related to Jaffa residents.
Each woman was given a different document adjusted to their personal needs. For example, some of the women were offered help in filing claims with the National Insurance Institute or with the Economy Ministry for daycare subsidies, or legal help in resolving debt issues. All the women were offered a check from the Tel Aviv Development Foundation in amounts ranging from several hundred to 4,000 shekels ($1,300) to buy clothes and food.
Several women said municipal officials pressured them to sign the documents. “They said, ‘We’ll help you with everything, but you need to get out of there now,’” said one of the women.
Another said officials told her that “it won’t be pleasant if they bring the police public-order unit to force you out in front of your children.”
Another woman said she was warned that “if you don’t leave Jaffa today, then we’ll evacuate you, and it won’t be nice.”
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Another one of the women added: “I had no one with me who could explain to them that they weren’t doing me a favor – that they were only giving me what I’m entitled to.”
Ohad Omer, an attorney from Breaking Walls, a nonprofit that helps impoverished people and families obtain public housing and has been helping the women, called the documents they were asked to sign “clearly unreasonable.”
“They were offering a kind of bribe, even though everything they were proposing the city is obligated to provide in the first place,” he said. “They were saying, in effect, we’ll do our job and in exchange you must take down the tent encampment. The city has a rights center that isn’t doing its job … They should have taken care of this a long time ago.”
Municipal officials had been begging the women to evacuate the site last week. “Erecting a tent as an act of protest is legitimate but for a limited amount of time. You can’t erect a permanent tent in a public area anywhere in the city,” said one official.
Last Thursday, a protest in support of the women drew dozens of Jaffa residents. At the same time, representatives of Halamish, the company responsible for public housing in Jaffa, arrived to gather information from the women about their needs and how they can be addressed.
What the women have in common is a lack of adequate housing due to a shortage of public housing apartments all over the country and in Tel Aviv in particular. Most of the women are eligible for public housing, but have been wait-listed. Last year, the state comptroller estimated that the average wait in 2019 was 31 months nationally, and even longer in the center of the country.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel sent a letter to the municipality on Sunday, saying that the women should be allowed to remain at the encampment. “Protest tents in the public space can be restricted only if there is sufficient justification for it, if they constitute a significant impairment of the public’s ability to make use of the public space,” the letter said.
In response, the municipality said that “it hadn’t conditioned assistance in obtaining rights residents are entitled to.” In addition, it said, “Any protest is legitimate and the municipality encourages the active participation of residents in the democratic game. At the same time, setting up a tent in the public space must be limited in time, regardless of the legitimacy of the struggle.”
It noted that it had arranged individual meetings with each of the women. “During the meetings, officials tried to help the families in different ways, among them by ensuring they get what they are entitled to," the letter read. "Some of the families chose to reach agreements of their own free will and end their part in the tent protest; others chose to continue and examine the options that they have.”