Tahrir Square in Jerusalem
Some say that the "Arab Spring"—the succession of popular protests that has swept the Arab world for the past six months, from Tunisia through Egypt and Bahrain, to Yemen, Jordan and Syria—has now reached Israel.
For the past fortnight, Israel's city streets and interurban thoroughfares have been swept by a wave of (relatively) small demonstrations, mostly by 20-35 year olds, protesting against the lack of accessible housing. Most young Israelis find themselves renting apartments at costs that eat up half their monthly salaries, and with little prospect of buying a home of their own.
The protests are almost unprecdented. Israel enjoys a healthy, sometimes turbulent democracy, and demonstrations are common, by Right and Left. But they are always about foreign policy—what to do about the Arabs, what to do with the settlements, make—or don't make—concessions for peace, etc. Famously, in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps on the outskirts of Beirut by right-wing Christian Arab militiamen, an alleged 400,000 Israelis, more than a tenth of the country's population, converged in a mass demonstration on downtown Tel Aviv, demanding that the government appoint a commission of inquiry. (Then prime minister Menachem Begin acceded, and defense minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign.)
But Israelis almost never mount the barricades to protest internal matters (except for the ultra-orthodox, who perennially demonstrate against violations of the Sabbath). The last major bout of internal protest was back in the early 1970s, by Sephardi youngsters— dubbed "the Black Panthers"—demonstrating against alleged discrimination and poverty.
This month's demonstrators have blocked roads and squatted outside the prime minister's house in Jerusalem. They have set up small tent encampments, à la Cairo's Tahrir Square, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Most of the demonstrations are without police permits. A few protesters have been arrested. Many of them, perhaps most, are children of well-educated middle-class families. They are receiving a measure of encouragement from politicians, both within the governing coalition and outside it.
In response, the government has begun to deliberate freeing up lands for the construction of cheap housing. House prices in Israel are high—in Tel Aviv even a very modest apartment can cost around $500,000 —while wages are low—most Israelis earn about $20-25,000 a year, heavily taxed—and mortgages are very expensive and usually cover no more than two-thirds of the cost of an apartment. Much of the expense is due to the price of land, which is scarce. Freeing agricultural land for construction would push prices down.
The demonstrators' main tent "city" has gone up on Rothschild Boulevard, in the heart of Tel Aviv. There is a double irony here. The boulevard is named after possibly the world's richest Jewish dynasty. And just over a century ago, a few hundred yards away, Jewish settlers established a small tent encampment amid the fin de siècle sand dunes and scrub—marking the spot from which this metropolis eventually expanded and developed.