More than 3,000 social protest activists gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday night for a mass rally to mark the two-year anniversary of the social justice struggle which saw major demonstrations in the summer of 2011.
Protesters marched from Habima Square to Kaplan Street, chanting against the government, tax hikes, and Israel’s gas export plan. Another group of demonstrators, which connected with the main march, started in south Tel Aviv’s Hativka neighborhood.
Toward the end of the rally, nearly a thousand protesters marched near the Shalom Interchange along the Ayalon Highway, and hundreds blocked part of the road, according to eyewitness estimates.
By 1 a.m. most demonstrators had dispersed, with a few individuals setting up protest camps in front of the Kiriya, the government complex and Ministry of Defense headquarters that surround Kaplan Street.
Demonstrators aimed their anger over the high cost of living at the prime minister and finance minister, the latter of whom had been elected by riding the wave of popular sentiment against high prices.
Protesters chanted “Bibi [Netanyahu], go home tonight!” and “Yair [Lapid], you’ll leave tonight,” as well as “the rule of capital is criminal.”
The demonstration also marked one year since the death of social activist Moshe Sliman, who set himself on fire last summer on Kaplan Street. Protesters read the letter Sliman wrote before he committed suicide and held a moment of silence in his honor.
Amid a sea of banners — many of which blamed Lapid for failing to fulfill his promises for social reform and blasted Netanyahu for working to benefit wealthy tycoons — groups chanted “war” as they marched. A number of activists were arrested on Tel Aviv’s main Ibn Gbirol Street.
One large sign read that Lapid “changed his mind, but not reality.” Protesters called him a “liar,” while others chanted “housing is not a luxury.”
Daphni Leef, one of the main organizers of the 2011 social justice protests, told the crowd that the protest was “for all Israelis, and not just for the middle class.” She cast the demonstration as a resurgence of the popular 2011 movement, which largely dwindled out over the last two years.
Tamar Zandberg, a member of the left-wing Meretz party who attended the rally, wrote on her Facebook page that people were marching because “there’s no future with Lapid and Bibi [Netanyahu],” and because the people “started something two years ago that they have no intention of stopping.”
Speaking after Leef, Charles Biton, a former politician active in the Black Panthers, a movement popular in the 1970s that rallied for better social conditions for Jews from Middle Eastern countries, said the 2011 protests were the first step in raising Israelis’ “consciousness” about the country’s social inequalities and lack of infrastructure for the poor.
The protests of summer 2011 “put these [social] issues, front and center, on the political agenda,” he said. “Now, we’re going for a second round,” he told the crowd, which erupted into wild cheers.
Earlier Saturday evening, major streets in Tel Aviv were blocked by police in anticipation of the rally. These were mostly in the vicinity of Rothschild Boulevard, which has become a symbol of the social justice struggle.
The 2011 protests, which culminated in a 400,000-plus rally in Tel Aviv, became a major factor in the 2013 elections, with some activists elected to the Knesset and a sense of economic injustice fueling strong election performances by the centrist Yesh Atid party and other political factions.
Despite the protesters’ anger toward Lapid and his economic austerity measures, the finance minister sought to categorize the movement as aligned with his goals.
In an interview earlier in the day, Lapid said that the social justice protests of 2011 gave rise to his Yesh Atid’s 19-seat success in the elections.
“I’m sitting here right now because there was something unfair in how the state was being run,” Lapid told Channel 10 News. “People did not take to the streets because of the housing or cottage cheese prices, but because they felt that the system was being abused.”
Lapid went on to claim that the middle class masses who rallied back in 2011 now understand that the Yesh Atid party is working in their favor, and said that many countries around the world are not as well off as Israel currently is.
“Most countries in Europe would embrace our situation with both hands,” he said.
Lapid added that the middle class accepts the fact that their income has shrunk due to the need to balance the state budget.
The finance minister also addressed Israel’s high cost of living, the main gripe of the two-year-old protests, and claimed that housing prices will drop in the coming years.
“The work we are doing in the housing field will be seen in two years,” Lapid said.
He declined to discuss whether tax rates will fall during that period as well.
Over the past few months, Yesh Atid, and Lapid in particular, have garnered heavy criticism for their role in the drafting of the state budget, which includes a series of heavy austerity measures that aim to cut government spending.
Many perceived that the measures, now working their way through the Knesset, unfairly targeted middle and lower class citizens rather than individuals earning a higher income.
The budget, which attempts to partially rectify a NIS 39 billion deficit, includes two percent budget cuts for almost all ministries in 2013. The number will rise to 3% in 2014, and is designed to make up for several changes made by the Cabinet that strayed from the original treasury proposal.
The budget also raised sales tax by 1% (to 18%), income tax by 1.5%, corporate tax to 26%, and imposed a further “luxury tax” on alcohol and cigarettes.
Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report