Leef to PM: We weren’t born yesterday

Some cautiously optimistic about proposals to solve housing problem, others react with scorn; demonstrators turn violent, blocking roads in Tel Aviv, Haifa.

Tent City press conference 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent City press conference 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Leaders of the main tent-city protest on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv dismissed solutions to the housing problem announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
The activists called the measures out of touch and not broad enough in scope to deal with the problems facing everyday Israelis.
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Late Tuesday evening, some of the protest centers turned violent.
In Gan Haem in Haifa, where some 700 were demonstrating, protesters blocked a junction nearby. Police unblocked the road and arrested seven people. In Tel Aviv, near the neighborhood of Hatikva, Haetzel street was blocked by demonstrators who said they would resist attempts to remove them.
Earlier, at the tent-city press conference, 26-year-old Tel Avivian Daphni Leef, who started the protest movement nearly two weeks ago, said the prime minister’s plan left the vast majority of people without an answer to the spiraling costs of living.
“Netanyahu said he will give plots of land out for free, and who will get them? Those people in Israel in need? No, those who will get them are the contractors, and the rest of his wealthy friends who can build on land free of charge. [The] houses will be the opposite of free. This is what Netanyahu presented as low-income housing covered by the state. It will actually be the largest privatization to be carried out in the history of his rotten premiership.
“What Mr. Netanyahu proposed was nothing less than fraud. Not only will he continue his cynical politics, but worsen them, and he dared to look us straight in the eye and lied when he presented these offers.
“Our answer to his offer is ‘No,’ Leef said.
“We here in Tel Aviv may be young, but we weren’t born yesterday.”
Leef also offered criticism of how she said the protest movement has been portrayed.
“What have they not said about us in recent days? When we came here with our tents 10 days ago, they said we were just some spoiled kids from Tel Aviv.
When young couples, middleaged couples and elderly people joined us, they said we were delusional leftists.
“Then other cities in Israel joined... and people from every color of the Israeli political rainbow came together, supporters of all parties and social movements.
We are the people,” she said.
Leef described Netanyahu’s offers as being directed almost entirely at university students, without consideration of the rest of those in need.
“He turned to students and offered them cheap housing.
Why specifically them? What about single mothers? What about the elderly, what about those students who will graduate in a year or two?” she asked.
Another protest leader, 33- year-old Yigal Rambam, asked, “When he talks about students and discharged soldiers, what about our grandparents? What about the disabled? Every sector in Israeli society suffers from the housing problem and there isn’t a general solution here. Any real solution must deal with rental prices, the prices of buying land, public housing and housing assistance. Any solution needs to include all of these issues.”
Other protesters repeatedly tried to disrupt Netanyahu’s press conference, where he unveiled his plan, shouting that Leef and the other protest leaders were not to be listened to, and that the ministers did not understand the issues at hand.
As detailed in his speech, the prime minister’s reforms included incentives for contractors to build low-cost housing, via tenders that will be won by whoever agrees to sell and rent apartments at the cheapest prices.
Land is to be allocated across the country for such projects.
There are also incentives for changing office buildings into residences.
Additionally, thousands of dormitory units will be built for students, in the hopes of freeing up rental apartments. Discounts of 50 percent on public transportation for students are also part of the plan.
Protesters in Rothschild Boulevard had gathered around a flatscreen TV affixed to a tree to watch Netanyahu’s press conference, surrounded by dozens of cameramen and reporters.
Netanyahu’s speech was met by boos and heckling by the protesters, many of whom stormed off before he finished introducing his proposals.
A few hours later, the National Union of Israeli Students held a press conference in which union head Itzik Shmuli said the union would not pull out of the struggle, even though the package offered to students was “without precedent.”
“We can’t ignore the fact that the package that the prime minister offered today to the students of Israel is an unprecedented achievement, I could even say historic, but I look to my left and right all the time and I see that I’m not alone in this struggle,” Shmuli said.
“When I’m arrested or I struggle in the streets, I see on both sides of me people who aren’t students. Not only that, I look behind us and see people who don’t have the strength to come and shout with us.
“Abandoning the greater struggle over housing would be irresponsible and immoral,” Shmuli said. “We are focusing on the issues of housing, and this problem is beyond those of students.”
Ron Livneh, head of the student union at Tel Aviv University, said Netanyahu had not consulted with student unions before formulating his proposals, and the plans he presented on Tuesday were “not only a bad solution, but the attempted bribery of the student organizations.
We will not lend our hands to this ‘divide and conquer’ strategy... Our protest is continuing at full force!” Livneh vowed that students would block more roads, occupy more buildings and hold more protests across the entire country.
The students’ announcement that they would continue to take part in the struggle came as an answer to those who worried that Netanyahu would present solutions directed specifically at students and convince them to withdraw from the protest movement, causing it to lose a crucial part of its support.
Alternative, detailed programs to solve the housing crisis were not presented at the press conferences that followed Netanyahu’s in the morning – one held by Leef and fellow protest leaders and the other by student leaders later in the afternoon.
In contrast to Tel Aviv, young demonstrators in Jerusalem were cautiously optimistic following the prime minister’s speech, but said they were not budging from Gan Hasus (Horse Park) in King George Avenue until they saw concrete steps that would significantly reduce the housing shortage.
“All in all, it gives us a good basis for negotiations,” said Ofer Berkovitch, head of the activist group Hitorerut Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Awakening) and a former city council member.
Demonstrators still needed clarifications about the number of new apartments for rent, the number of new apartments subsidized through the “price by inhabitant” program, and what steps are being taken against the growth in “ghost apartments,” which belong to foreign residents who visit for less than a month a year and drive housing prices up across the city by gobbling up available apartments, Berkovitch said.
“We want to hear specific solutions for Jerusalem, because it’s much more complicated here,” he said, adding that the capital’s tent city will stay in place until they receive Jerusalem-specific solutions, even if the protesters on Rothschild in Tel Aviv go home.
In contrast to the chaotic clamor in Tel Aviv, where the demonstrators have struggled to find a common voice, the demonstrators in Jerusalem have had clear demands from the start, partly because many Jerusalem activist groups aimed at keeping young people in the capital have been dealing with affordable housing issues for years, Berkovitch said.
Most of the students in Jerusalem viewed the government plan as a good beginning, but vowed to stay in their tents, which had grown to a semicircle of more than 40 tents, until they saw meaningful change.
“We gave a very concrete list of demands, especially about the price of rental apartments, and on the surface, the prime minister has gone into many of these requests,” said Nissan Yaron, a fifth-year cinema student at the Sam Spiegel Film School. “In our opinion it’s an excellent beginning, but we’re waiting for the concrete solutions.”
“They promised 10,000 apartments, but we haven’t seen this on paper, and anyway the problem is tens of thousands of apartments, so it’s not enough,” said Ohad Halevi, a law student at the Hebrew University.
Halevi added that some aspects of the new housing plan, especially the promise to give students living outside of major city centers a 50% discount on public transportation, were “cosmetic” answers rather than meaningful solutions.
The Jerusalem tent city launched a Facebook page to announce a daily schedule of lectures, concerts with live music and DJs, and screenings of documentaries that deal with working class issues.
Yaron expressed trepidation that the tent cities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were turning into social gathering spots rather than political movements, but added that the most important thing was to get as many people as possible involved in the protests to continue to publicly pressure Netanyahu. The tent demonstrations entered their 12th day on Tuesday.
“This is a bigger struggle, it’s not just doctors, social workers, cottage cheese, or gas prices,” Berkovitch said. “This needs to be the first step in a long march to allow people to live with respect.”
In Independence Park in Jerusalem, the “family area” of the tent protest, 10 tents were set up by families who are demanding more public housing.
Beit Shemesh joined the campaign on Tuesday for the first time, with a tent city and a demonstration in the afternoon to encourage some of the 4,000 already-approved apartments for Beit Shemesh to go to secular and modern-Orthodox residents.
Half of the 4,000 apartments have already been set aside for haredim, and there is political pressure for the remaining 2,000 to be haredi housing as well, said City Council member Shalom Lerner, a 21-year-resident of Beit Shemesh.
Students in Jerusalem insisted the movement transcended just students, and was for all groups struggling to find affordable housing, including single parents, the elderly and discharged soldiers, though no representatives of those groups were present on Tuesday.
American olah Judy Boyd, a 69-year-old retiree originally from Virginia, expressed support for the struggle while passing by the park.
“The dollar is going down and I’m on a fixed income,” she said.
“This is not just about young people. What about me?”
Gil Hoffman and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.