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Israelis stage mass demonstrations protesting cost of living

TEL AVIV — More than a quarter-million Israelis marched in nationwide protests Saturday evening in one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the Jewish state.

Police estimates varied from 250,000 to over 300,000 protesters in nearly a dozen sites across the country.

The largest protest was in Tel Aviv, where marchers walked through the center of the city. The focus of the movement was the high cost of housing, though many Israelis said it was a general protest over the struggle to make ends meet.

"Every month was the same. We would work and cut coupons and hold off on anything frivolous. Still, we would end the month counting pennies and not put anything away," said Lital Ben-Mor, a 33-year-old mother of three. "You have no idea how depressing it is to think you will spend your whole life barely getting by. Now - these protests show that across the country Israelis feel the same way. That it's not just us who are stuck like this."

Israel's economy is one of the strongest in the region. It projects growth of 4.8 percent this year when most countries in the region are facing economic stagnation. For the average Israeli, however, costs have gone up while their wages have stayed the same.

Figures published in Israel's largest daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot said that the price of housing in Israel has risen 60% in the last four years. Increasingly, Israelis are spending more than half their wages on housing.

Israeli officials responded to the protest by forming a panel of government ministers and economic experts to draw up a plan to reduce living costs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to rein in expectations, telling the protesters that he would not make rash decisions.

"We cannot take all the lists of problems, and all the list of demands, and pretend we will be able to satisfy everyone," Netanyahu said. "We need to be fiscally responsible, while making some socially sensitive amendments."

The committee is expected to take one month before issuing its recommendation, leaving protesters frustrated and calling for immediate changes.

The protest leaders have published a list of specific demands, though the movement has come to represent a vague call for change across various interest groups in Israel.

The official demands include construction of affordable housing and a lowering of the 16 percent sales tax.

"These are just two specific things. But what they really want is for everything to be different. For the average person with an average family to be able to buy a home and give his kids an education," said Aviva Fine, a 41-year-old mother of two who attended the protest Saturday.

She described how both she and her husband have full-time jobs that earn slightly above the average in Israel. Though the live in a suburb north of Tel Aviv, they spend half of their wages on their mortgage each month.

"The truth is we can't put anything away. No matter how many cuts we make and how many holidays we postpone, the daily cost of life in Israel is too high for us. We just feel desperate," she said.

The "Israeli summer" of protests began with a Facebook petition over the high cost of cottage cheese - a staple in most Israeli homes. Three weeks ago, a young freelance filmmaker fed up with the cost of renting a flat in Tel Aviv announced to her friends that she was going to set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard - one of the cities most expensive residential streets.

Her protest took off; within a week hundreds of tents crowded the boulevard as Israelis from across the country announced they would continue to occupy the tents until housing became more affordable.

"It's the kind of thing that any Israeli can get behind. It's untenable that the majority of us spend half our salary, or more, on rent. Every year we watch the things around us get more expensive, though our salaries stay the same and can't keep up," said Noam Sheizan, a 22-year-old who has slept on his tent on Rothschild for the past two weeks.

"Netanyahu and his ministers won't be able to ignore this outcry," Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's most popular commentators, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Sunday. "It reflects a force that threatens their continued hold on power."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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