JERUSALEM — Demonstrators filled the streets of Israel's largest cities Saturday night to protest the country's high cost of living, winding down a summer-long movement that has fizzled in recent weeks because of rising security concerns.
Saturday's protest brought more than 400,000 to the streets, according to initial police estimates, falling short of the "million person" march organizers hoped would be the largest social protest in the country's history. The crowds marched in cities across the country chanting "the people demand social justice" and "we want a welfare state."
The march will mark the end of a chapter in Israel's first large-scale domestic protest movement. In the past two months, thousands of Israelis have erected tent cities across the country to protest skyrocketing housing prices. Weekly protests held on Saturday night broke records in the Jewish State — drawing nearly 300,000 people on Aug. 6.
One young man holding a sign asking "Where is my future?" said the protests had tapped into widespread discontent throughout the country. On the back of his sign was the often-quoted statistic that the average Israeli spends more than half his salary on housing, and that real estate prices in Israel's largest cities have risen by more than 60 percent in four years.
Masar Abu Hamthiya, a 33-year-old Palestinian resident of Lod, said he came to the protests because they represented "everyone who has suffered in recent years."
"We have protested the occupation, and war and peace and nobody came. These protests are different because it is for a better everyday life. The price of food for our kids, the price of school, the price of our homes — for Jews and Arabs alike, it has all become too much. We are protesting now together as human beings."
Following Saturday night's demonstration, protest leaders are expecting most of the demonstrators to pack up their tents and suspend activity until a government-appointed committee announces its recommendations to lower the cost of living.
Support for the protests has dipped in recent weeks, largely due to a number of security concerns that refocused Israeli attention on defense issues. But for some of the protesters, the decision to suspend their movement just at it reached its apex was a mistake.
"It is the silliest thing we could do! We should keep up the pressure. But instead we are giving in to what the government wants and sit around like good little children," said Shmulik Aloni, a 27-year-old student who has spent the past two months living in a tent in the center of Tel Aviv. "Anytime they want us to submit they scare us into submission. Anytime we want to protest, they tell us that our lives are in danger. That is what they are doing now."
A few weeks ago, a group of attackers penetrated Israel's southern border with Egypt and killed eight Israeli citizens. Security officials said the group was "well-organized" and that other attacks on Israel could come amid growing tensions in the region.
In a few weeks, the Palestinian leadership will bring their bid for statehood before the United Nations. If the U.N. General Assembly votes in favor of acknowledging a Palestinian state based on the 1967 armistice line, it would mark a huge step.
Israeli military officials have warned that whether the effort succeeds or fails, widespread protests are anticipated in the Palestinian territories and beyond.
"Israel's police security and security officers cannot be distracted elsewhere," said an Israeli intelligence officer during a closed-door meeting of the Israeli Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The remarks of the official, who can't be named as a matter of policy, were reported alongside other political officials in the meeting who suggested that the "youths protesting" would have to go home ahead of September.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, journalist Oudeh Basharat said Israel was "waking up from the rosy social dream . . . The social protest can wait, because it's not possible to give up the war momentum: bombings in Gaza, missiles on the south, and this time the flames are reaching as far as Egypt."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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