Has the Arab Spring arrived in Israel?

Israeli demonstrators block a main junction with tents as they protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in Israel on July 25, 2011.
Credit: Jack Guez

Frustration over poor economic conditions, and anger at government handling of those conditions, was the foundation of the Arab Spring protests. Protester demands, however, quickly widened to include more rights, the prosecution of corrupt leaders and an end to violent crackdowns, among other things. It was a pattern seen from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and beyond. And it was all led, at least initially, by young people.

And it looks a lot like what is happening in Israel right now.

In the past two weeks, small protests held by mostly university students in Tel Aviv in response to rising housing costs have grown into large scale demonstrations. Tent cities have sprung up along Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, the equivalent of New York's Park Avenue, as well as in Jerusalem and several other outlying cities. Some reports said that as many as 30,000 people participated in protests over the weekend.

What's more, a poll conducted by Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed that 87 percent of the Israeli population supported the protesters, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay a trip to Poland to try and quell the uprising. He put forth an emergency package aimed at lowering housing costs that was quickly rejected by protesters, who accused Netanyahu of bribery.

The whole thing happened suddenly and appeared to catch Israeli leaders off guard. “The housing crisis in Israel is a real crisis,” Netanyahu told reporters on Tuesday.

Noam Sheizaf at +972, an independent web magazine dedicated to Israeli and Palestinian issues, summed it up:

"It happened almost overnight: Friday morning a week ago, walking near Habima Square in central Tel Aviv, I saw only a handful of tents, with no more than a few dozen Israelis who answered an internet call for an ongoing protest against rising rent costs. On Saturday evening the tents covered an entire block on Rothschild Boulevard, and protesters threw cottage cheese containers on the Likud HQ on nearby King George Street. A couple of days later, the tent protests came to dominate the news cycle."

Israel, of course, is no stranger to political upheaval and is better equipped than others to deal with the crisis. But, then, no one ever believed that the protests in Egypt in January would lead to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February. Seems anything is possible these days.

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