Thousands of self-employed Israelis and small business owners took part in demonstrations throughout the country Saturday night, demanding government support amid the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rallies were held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Eilat, Kafr Qassem and elsewhere, with demonstrators panning the government’s limited economic support through unemployment stipends and grants as woefully inadequate.
Wearing masks and standing several feet apart from each other, protesters held aloft signs demanding 100% compensation and blasting the government as corrupt, the latest in a series of demonstrations drawing attention to the plight of self-employed workers, who are not entitled to unemployment benefits.
Israel has so far granted the self-employed a payment of NIS 6,000 ($1,700) to help them weather the pandemic and last week approved a plan including a second stipend equaling 70 percent of their regular income up to a maximum amount of NIS 10,500 ($3,000). But for many Israelis living paycheck to paycheck, the stipends, which may be slow to reach their bank accounts, are not enough.
One speaker at Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park said she could not afford to pay rent this month and said there were “thousands of families” like her.
“We are demanding justice, not charity,” another speaker at the rally said.
The protest was organized by Standing Together, which advocates for Jewish-Arab equality and socioeconomic rights. Many of the protesters also represented the Communist Hadash party, which traditionally rallies for workers’ rights in early May.
Uri Weltmann of Standing Together accused politicians of only being interested in providing benefits to “their tycoon friends” while ignoring small businesses. Meanwhile, he said, Israel had “over a million unemployed, an all time high, hundreds of thousands of self-employed who don’t know how they’ll manage, apartment renters and mortgage payers who don’t know how they’ll make next months payments.
While the government has set out NIS 80 billion (approximately $22.5 billion) to support the economy through the crisis, only some NIS 4.6 billion has so far gone to small businesses, according to Channel 12 news.
Of 48,000 requests by small businesses for support, only 14,500 have been approved.
Meanwhile most of the funds, the report said, are going to large businesses which can more easily secure loans from banks without the need for government assistance.
With the economy at a near-halt, jobless figures spiked to over 1.2 million in April, bringing the unemployment rate to an unprecedented 27%, from below 4% pre-coronavirus.
Many have expressed outrage at receiving only several hundreds shekels in unemployment stipends a month, and sometimes less, after years paying the National Insurance Institute large chunks of their income.
Protests by various groups demanding increased government help have been held almost daily in recent weeks, even as authorities have begun to take steps to open the economy back up in line with dwindling numbers of new coronavirus infections.
Economists believe it will take a year or more for Israel’s economy to recover from the crisis, and some businesses may be permanently hobbled.
On Saturday, a group of local governments in Arab-majority areas said they would call a general strike to protest the lack of government help for municipal services, the Kan news outlet reported.
According to protesting local leaders, the towns and regional councils have received only NIS 47 million collectively for their 1.2 million residents to offset shortfalls caused by the health crisis.
The self-employed have long complained of mistreatment by state and tax authorities, who they say take large amounts of their income but provide no social security benefits enjoyed by salaried employees.
Last month, the government approved an NIS 8 billion ($2.27 billion) plan to increase support for self-employed Israelis and small business owners who have been hit hard by the coronavirus, following accusations that Israel wasn’t helping businesses forced to shut down.
The plan includes a grant of up to NIS 400,000 per business or non-profit, depending on the degree to which its activities have been curtailed, the Finance Ministry said in a statement. The grants will be paid directly by the Tax Authority starting in May, the statement said, without giving details on how eligibility will be determined.