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The unspeakable truth about Israel’s social crisis

As mass demonstrations, marches and occupations of public spaces extend into a third week, Israel is seeing the rise of a new social movement.

In recent weeks hundreds of thousands have been marching in cities throughout Israel, demanding action against the sharply rising cost of housing.

Since mid-July, growing numbers of Israelis have been taking to the streets, outraged at the rapid increase in Israel’s property prices over the past few years.

The protests have become the largest in the country’s history.

However, amid the popular support from the Israeli people, discussion of a key issue underpinning it has been avoided: Israel’s massive state funding for settlement in the Palestinian territories.

The protests began on July 14 when students set up a small collection of tents at the exclusive Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Since then thousands of ‘tent cities’ have sprouted across the country.

The symbolism is powerful. It was at 16, Rothschild Boulevard that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Israeli state in May 1948.

The key issue behind the mass protest is Israel’s housing crisis, marked by spiralling rent and property prices.

While Israel’s economy has largely avoided the global recession, with 20-year low unemployment and positive growth, the cost of living has been steadily increasing.

Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah explain why in their op-ed in the New York Times:

"So far, the protesters have managed to remain apolitical, refusing to declare support for any leader or to be hijacked by any political party.

But there is one issue conspicuously missing from the protests: Israel’s 44-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, which exacts a heavy price on the state budget and is directly related to the lack of affordable housing within Israel proper.

According to a report published by the activist group Peace Now, the Israeli government is using over 15 percent of its public construction budget to expand West Bank settlements, which house only 4 percent of Israeli citizens. According to the Adva Center, a research institute, Israel spends twice as much on a settlement resident as it spends on other Israelis.

Indeed, much of the lack of affordable housing in Israeli cities can be traced back to the 1990s, when the availability of public housing in Israel was severely curtailed while subsidies in the settlements increased, driving many lower-middle-class and working-class Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza Strip — along with many new immigrants.

Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population. The annual cost of maintaining control over Palestinian land is estimated at over $700 million.

Had the protesters begun by hoisting signs against the occupation, they would most likely still be just a few people in tents. By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together.

And by decidedly placing the occupation outside of the debate, the protesters have neutralized much of the fear-mongering traditionally employed in Israel to silence discussions of social issues."

Since 1957 the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has cost more than $50 billion, to the detriment of Israel’s other sectors.

According to Peace Now this is set to continue, with the government having to spend at least $570 million per year on subsidies for settlers. This includes both low-interest mortgages for settlers as well as discounts of up to 70% on land prices.

Currently the protests enjoy the popular support of the people, with polls showing 88% of Israelis endorsing the movement, something that would have been near impossible to achieve if the issue of expenditure on settlements is taken up directly. A protest endorsing Palestinian statehood last month didn’t even manage to draw a fraction of this support.

"The people who are running the protest movement right now are trying to be universal, in the sense of including all citizens of Israel," said Shlomo Swirski, the academic director at the Adva Center.

However, as Reider and Abu Sarah, point out:

“Even as they call for the strengthening of Israel’s once-robust welfare state, the protesters are disregarding the fact that it is alive and well in the West Bank.

Although some of their demands can be met without addressing the settlements (like heavier taxes on landlords’ rental income to discourage rent increases), Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation.”