Israeli demonstrators relax at a tent camp
Israeli demonstrators relax at a tent camp set up in the centre of the coastal city of Ashdod on July 22, to protest against the rising prices of real estate in Israel. © Jack Guez - AFP/File
Israeli demonstrators relax at a tent camp
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Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: July 24, 2011

Plagued by rising rents, Israelis pitch their tents

Hit by a dizzying rise in housing prices, hundreds of young Israelis have set up tent camps in a burgeoning nationwide protest movement set to move next week to the gates of the nation's parliament.

"This is just the beginning. The struggle continues," said Haim Nahon, 32, married with two children, pointing to his makeshift home, one of 30 tents set up on a strip of grass at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

He said that his income as a graduate in special education and tour guide did not allow him to keep up with spiralling rents, let alone dream of owning his own home.

"Today, it takes on average about one million shekels (200,000 Euros, $295,000) to buy an apartment in Israel," estate agent Eli Melloul told AFP.

"In one year, the average (purchase) price of housing has jumped 32 percent in Tel Aviv, and 17 percent in Jerusalem, he said. "It's the general trend throughout the country."

Rents are high too, with a family apartment easily reaching 5,000 shekels a month -- more than the minimum wage.

At the same time about 150,000 properties, often owned by Jews living overseas, stand empty for most of the time.

"To survive, I took on more and more odd jobs, but I couldn't keep my head above water," said Road Levy, 24, sitting cross-legged in front of his tent.

After his compulsory three-year military service he spent a year working abroad to earn and save money. He paid 10,000 shekels to enrol in law school, and shares a small room at the university campus for 900 shekels a month.

Not far from his small tent the coffee shops in a luxury shopping mall are packed and customers throng to buy imported designer goods.

Since 2004, Israel's economic growth rate has averaged 4.5 percent, while unemployment has fallen to around six percent from close to 11 percent over the same period.

But public disgruntlement is growing, fuelled by almost-daily revelations of social inequality, injustice and corruption.

"We are with you," called the driver of a tram passing close to the Jerusalem tent-dwellers.

A consumer boycott of cottage cheese launched recently on Facebook quickly led to a fall in prices of the Israeli staple.

Building on that success, and supported by the national students' union, property protesters have mobilised by pitching their tents throughout Israel from the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to Beersheva in the southern Negev desert.

Every day the movement is growing, with protest marches in major towns and cities.

There is also a rising media clamour, generally sympathetic to the "new poor" and highly critical of the heavy tax burden born by the middle class, unrestrained capitalism and the flow of public funds to support settlement in the occupied West Bank, at the cost of infrastructure investment within Israel.

Aware of voters' concerns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has addressed the housing problem, pledging to streamline planning and building procedures and to promote low-rent accommodation.

Israeli public radio on Friday said that the Old City protesters planned to move their tents to the lawns facing parliament on Monday, when MPs are set to debate housing reform.

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