Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and photographer and Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian columnist with the newspaper Al Quds, write in the New York Times about the profound myopia of the current massive protests in Israel:
There are profound and institutionalized economic disparities between Arabs and Jews in Israel. But when it comes to housing prices, an Israeli Arab who makes $1,000 a month and pays $500 in rent can still find common ground with an Israeli Jew making $2,000 and giving $1,000 to the landlord.
On Saturday, approximately 150,000 people flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and many small suburbs and towns to protest the rising cost of living. It was Israel’s largest demonstration on any issue in over a decade, and organizers are calling for an even larger protest this weekend, mimicking the snowballing weekly rallies of the Arab Spring.
The protests that are paralyzing Israel began on July 14, when a few professionals in their 20s decided they could no longer tolerate the city’s uncontrolled rents, and pitched six tents at the top of the city’s most elegant street, Rothschild Boulevard. Three weeks later, the six tents have swelled to over 400, and more than 40 similar encampments have spread across the country, forming unlikely alliances between gay activists and yeshiva students, corporate lawyers and the homeless and ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs.
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.
But 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.