1,000 demonstrate for affordable housing at Knesset

PM says planning c’tees are among most cumbersome in world, need to be reformed; Steinitz: Housing prices likely to drop by end of year.

Protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Following a week of tent protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, nearly a thousand demonstrators furious over the soaring cost of housing marched to the Knesset on Sunday night with a dozen tents hoisted on their shoulders.
Chanting “the nation demands social justice!” the demonstrators packed up their temporary camp-out in Kikar Tzahal, next to the Old City Walls, and moved their tents next to the entrance to the Knesset.RELATED:Students burst into Knesset c'tee meeting, break glassesCourt orders release of 8 arrested in TA housing rally J'lem: Tent-city protesters to head to Knesset
They plan to stay the night in front of the Knesset, and on Monday afternoon will move to a permanent camp in Gan Hasus (Horse Park) on King George Street, where they will stay until “there is meaningful change,” said Sivan Vardi, the director of the Jerusalem activist organization Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit).
“Until we get the things we need, we are going to stay in the streets,” she said.
On Monday morning, demonstrators will build a fake brick wall and use their tents to block the entrance to the Knesset, representing the “impenetrable wall” that the government has put around affordable housing. The gesture is intended to symbolically prevent Knesset members from attending a vote on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s National Housing Committee Law.
“This is the first time the middle class is waking up and demanding to be able to live here,” said Rachel Azaria, a city councilwoman from the Yerushalmim party. “It’s not only about housing, it’s much larger,” Azaria continued, as she marched with her husband and three daughters on Sunday night.
“I have no money to pay for rent, [my] salary keeps going down and the rent goes up – it’s impossible to live here,” said 27-year-old Itai Abuav, a political science student at the Hebrew University, echoing the sentiments of hundreds of the demonstrators.
The protesters on Sunday night were almost exclusively people in their 20s trying to balance school and work with paying the rent.
“I could be the dad of almost everyone here,” said Haim Ben-Ami, a 59-year-old former high-school principal who was one of the only demonstrators over age 30. Ben-Ami has been looking for an apartment for his daughter for the past few months and was discouraged by what he has found.
“Finally, the students got out of their apathy and are actually doing something,” he said. He added that most parents were embarrassed to show up at the protest because it meant that they were struggling to help their children pay rent.
Ben-Ami, who now works in real estate, after retiring from education, said that since the tent protests started two weeks ago, rents have actually increased by hundreds of shekels as landlords in Jerusalem learned how much students pay to live in Tel Aviv.
Former Jerusalemite Amir Ben- Cohen, who moved to south Tel Aviv because the prices were lower than Jerusalem, said the small number of demonstrators on Sunday night was because people were “simply exhausted” from the past week of protests, including the large demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, which attracted upwards of 20,000 people.
“Yesterday was a critical mass of people,” said Ben-Cohen, a 29-yearold anthropology student at the Hebrew University. “Yesterday, there was optimism; we really felt there was something changing.”
One demonstrator was detained after trying to jump the fence in front of the Knesset, but the demonstration was much tamer than Saturday’s Tel Aviv march, when 43 people were arrested for tussling with police as the event broke up.
Meanwhile, police said the protesters were permitted to block roads at the end of Saturday night’s demonstration, but a group of law-breakers chose to attack officers by throwing stun and smoke grenades, dragging garbage cans and throwing bottles.
“We warned them repeatedly that they would be dispersed, and those who did not respond were subjected to reasonable force,” Tel Aviv police said.
Police accused the activists of cynically using the goodwill of officers toward freedom of expression and demonstration, to riot. Of the 43 arrested, eight were brought to the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Sunday for a remand hearing. The court ruled to release one person unconditionally, while the remaining seven were released under restricted conditions.
The court also issued an injunction that bans the seven protesters from entering the tent city encampment on Rothschild Boulevard for the next seven days.
Police had asked the court to prolong the detentions of all eight protesters.
They are suspected of offenses that include assaulting police officers, damaging property and throwing a smoke grenade.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday reassured those protesting against soaring housing prices that as early as this week, a series of steps will be taken to reduce costs and simplify planning and building procedures.
“Apartments are too expensive because there are not enough of them. There are not enough apartments because a government monopoly holds more than 90 percent of the land in Israel, and it is not releasing it,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“First of all, it is not releasing it for planning because there are planning committees, the most cumbersome in the Western world or nearly so, and it takes five or more years to plan an apartment in Israel.
“It is not releasing it because when an apartment is planned, in order to market it, there is another cumbersome body, called the Israel Lands Authority, which releases it very slowly, at very high prices,” the prime minister said.
“To change this, it is necessary to bring about a fundamental change, to break the government monopoly, to simplify the planning and building committees and to simplify the ILA and change it into a body that markets the land of the State of Israel for the Israeli people,” he said.
There are 45,000 apartments this year in new construction projects, but “it is not enough,” Netanyahu said.
“This week, we will do two major things. One, we will pass the ILA reform and the reform of the planning and building committees, so that the ‘supertanker’ may take off. It hasn’t yet and this will be the first thing,” he said. “The second thing, we will take a series of focused steps to help young couples, students and other needy populations in the next one to 1.5 years until the major increases in housing come into force.”
Earlier on Sunday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that the government has been discussing the housing shortage for almost two years and that people have already begun to feel the effects of regulations designed to reduce housing prices across the country.
Steinitz said he believes housing prices will drop by the end of 2011 or in early 2012.
The government is trying to catch up on an almost 10-year lag in housing construction, and whoever claims that the problem can be solved within a few months is “mistaken,” he told Israel Radio.
The finance minister also expressed disappointment over opposition in the cabinet to housing reforms that would shorten the procedures for obtaining approval for new projects.
Labor MK Isaac Herzog, also speaking to Israel Radio, said Steinitz’s comments were “fishy” and that the government must intervene immediately in the apartment rental market and in building procedures.
According to Herzog, Netanyahu and Steinitz have long “ignored the warning signs” over the housing issue, some of which he himself sent.
Yaakov Lappin, Ben Hartman and Joanna Paraszczuk contributed to this report.