An estimated 70,000 people took to the streets Saturday night, from Nahariya in the north to Eilat in the south, as part of an ongoing wave of protests against the high cost of living. On Saturday, the focal point of demonstrations shifted from Tel Aviv to the country's periphery. Protest leaders from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv embraced their counterparts in Haifa, Nahariya, Netanya, Afula, Beersheba, Eilat and several other cities as they all joined together in a chorus of demands for "social justice."
Police would not provide official estimates of the turnout, but independent observers put the number at more than 70,000 people. In the North, approximately 40,000 people filled the streets, 25,000 of whom protested in Haifa, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and Bahais. Eight-thousand demonstrated in Afula, 1,000 in Nahariya, 1,000 in Kiryat Shmona and another 1,000 in Rosh Pina.
At the southern region's central demonstration in Beersheba, around 15,000 people protested, together with another 2,500 in Eilat. In the Sharon area, several thousand also demonstrated: about 7,000 took to the streets in Netanya, 4,500 in Hod Hasharon, 6,000 in Modi'in and 1,500 in Rishon Lezion. In addition to the main demonstrations, protesters also turned out in Beit She'an, Dimona and Petah Tikva. Dozens of Israeli-Arab residents of Taybeh and Tira also demonstrated on the edge of Route 444.
"The idea is to finally break the perceived barriers between Tel Aviv and other areas in the country," explained Regev Kontes, one of the Tel Aviv protest leaders, on the decision to hold the protests outside of the big city this time.
People in the periphery are crying out just like those in the center
During the demonstration in Haifa, the largest in the city since the Wadi Salib events of the 1950s where Jewish immigrants from Arab and Islamic countries protested against the government over their poor economic conditions, some 25,000 people marched from downtown Meyerhoff Square to the German Colony. Yonah Levy, a resident of Afula, where nearly 8,000 people demonstrated, said, "it was important that the government knew that the periphery is crying out the same message as that of residents in the center."
National Student Union Chairman Itsik Shmueli, who spoke at Saturday night's demonstration, pointed a finger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying, "Look carefully at the residents of Afula ... during the last election their votes gave you 42 seats. And I'm speaking to you from here and telling you that you let these people down."
In Beersheba, organizers anticipated tens of thousand of protesters, but only about 15,000 people took to the streets. "I'm not ashamed to say this is a political protest," said renowned musician Ahinoam Nini, known better as Noa. "This an unprecedented awakening of the country. It is also a political demonstration," the singer said, drawing mixed reactions from protest organizers who wished to keep statements from the protests apolitical.
Ben Gurion University's Student Union Chairman Uri Keidar also addressed Netanyahu during the Beersheba demonstration saying, "The people awakened during your term and so you're the one who needs to come up with the solutions." He added, "there cannot be a solution that does not include major investment in the Negev."
Margalit Tzanani, who angered protest leaders when she said two weeks ago that the social demonstrations were "Tzfonbonim [spoiled yuppy] protests," arrived in Beersheba on Saturday to show support for the protesters and said: "I back the protesters, but I'm against the organizers ... I was never against the social protests."
The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment on Saturday night's demonstrations, but Likud sources claimed that the protest marches were a "failure."
"We again received proof that these were leftist-Tel Aviv protests," sources said. "The hundreds of protester-filled buses that the New Israel Fund brought to the periphery failed to arouse the public against the government," the source added.
Trajtenberg to hold some discussions in front of cameras
Although the protest organizers' demand to hold live televised negotiations with Netanyahu has been sharply criticized, it will eventually happen, at least partly, according to Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the committee appointed by Netanyahu to find solutions for the lowering of living and housing prices in Israel. Trajtenberg decided that he and his colleagues will hold some of the negotiations in front of cameras that will transmit live broadcasts online.
The committee said that only discussions open to the public and those in which protest leaders and student representatives are participating will be held in front of the cameras. The committee's other discussions, during which the chairman is expected to meet with 14 members and eight consultants, will be held at the Van Leer Institute in the Talbiyeh neighborhood of Jerusalem without cameras and will be closed to the public. This week, committee members plan to visit tent encampments across the country and discuss the housing issue with protesters. Trajtenberg is also expected this week to visit the main tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard.
The committee's next official meeting will take place Tuesday, and during the week its members are expected to publish an advertisement calling on anyone who has suggestions and ideas for confronting the issues to present them. The committee will also set up a website where citizens can submit working papers, letters and action plans. The activities will take place in cooperation with MK Michael Eitan, the minister for the improvement of government services, who is in charge of government communication with the public.
The committee will be based on a format of four teams, each appointed to deal with different topics, one of which is housing. Since the team's time frame is limited, it will invite only those people whose proposals are most insightful to present their ideas before the committee. These sessions will be broadcast live with the aim of facilitating direct contact with the public and showing transparency.
The expressed goal of the committee members' visits to the tent cities is to not only allow citizens to look at numerical data concerning housing, but also to hear the general feeling of those facing hardships on the street.
The committee will present its report to the prime minister and finance minister only at the end of September. Last week, it was announced that in addition to the committee's published action plan, it will shed light on the importance of providing free education in a gradual manner to children aged three years and up and of providing help to mothers with children under the age of three. The plan involves increasing budgets for day care centers and nursery schools, and recognition of some child-care expenses. There is also a proposal to add tax credits for working mothers. The estimated cost of the education reforms amount to about NIS 3 billion.
Tents will not be dismantled
Last week, forum leaders of development and periphery towns and mayors of non-Jewish municipalities, in cooperation with and support of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, decided they will hold a general strike on September 4. As part of the strike, about 80 local authorities will not provide social and garbage collection services, will not issue traffic tickets, and local government offices will be closed. In addition, the authorities will not provide additional services associated with education (transportation to and from school, security, assistants, etc.) for lack of funds, which will also likely disrupt teaching in schools.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch agreed not to target the right of protesters to set up tents across the country. The two leaders discussed the issue after a rumor surfaced last week and was broadcast by media that police planned to dismantle the protest tents. After Aharonovitch examined the situation, he found that local authorities made no requests to remove the tents and that police would not do so voluntarily.
Gadi Golan, Danny Brenner, Nitzi Yakov, Yael Branovsky, Dan Lavie, Shlomi Diaz, Mati Tuchfeld and Yehuda Shlezinger contributed to this report.