Israel: self-immolation sends shock through protests (VIDEO)


Demonstrators march through the streets to protest rising housing costs on July 14, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel.


Uriel Sinai

TEL AVIV, Israel — In the surge of Tel Aviv's social protests demonstration last night, a man read out a letter outlining his discontents, doused himself with fuel and set himself alight.

The man, Moshe Silman, 57, of Haifa, who was well known in the activist community, is in a medically induced coma with burns on 94 percent of his body. Doctors announced today that he has "low chances" of survival, and in an irony many have struggled to describe, a shortage of burn unit beds is keeping him for now, many hours after the self-immolation, in a standard ER. 

The lack of hospital beds was one of the protest movement's earliest grievances. Professor Ze'ev Rotstein, Tel HaShomer's director, told Israel Army Radio that "the optimal care for him can only be found in a burn unit bed. It’s a question of resources."

From beginning to end, it is impossible to think of a more tragically fitting figure to represent the cause of Israelis who in last night's rallies marked one year of the Occupy movement in Tel Aviv.

More from GlobalPost: Occupy World: a protest movement goes global

Demonstrations have been ongoing with protesters demanding fairer distribution of goods and services in Israel. For the second weekend in a row, over 10,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, several thousand more in Jerusalem.

Possibly due to the approach of Israel's electoral year, recent protests have taken a decidedly more political tone than last summer's mass movements. The Netanyahu government has also taken a more combative tone, accusing marchers and movement leaders of choosing political sides.

In recent years, Silman, once the owner of a successful transport business, found himself deeper and deeper in debt. Having once been a homeowner, he was repeatedly denied requests for public housing and is now a week away from being kicked out of the friend's apartment in which he was allowed to stay for free in recent months.

Numerous friends from Haifa knew that he had threatened to kill himself before becoming homeless, and had organized to protect him at the Haifa march.

In what Ha'artez describes as a "bureaucratic nightmare" Sliman lost one of his business' four trucks in 2003 when National Insurance Institute bailiffs seized it over a $3,787 debt. The debt had accrued because the institute continued to send letters to his company's former address.

More from GlobalPost: Israel's protest movement erupts again

In order to reclaim the van, Silman paid off a third of the debt. Then he was slapped with a $300 towing fee. Interests rapidly aggregated on his outstanding debt, reaching levels he would never be able to make good on. Government agencies in Israel routinely add 25 percent or higher interests, sometimes on a monthly basis, to any debts, and enjoy a wide berth of actions when it comes to enforcing repayment.

In recent years, Sliman had lost his bank account and driver's license, his home, and even his mother's apartment, as she had signed as his guarantor.

From the initial mishap with the truck, it had become a downward spiral. Just before soaking himself in fuel at the rally, Silman read aloud a letter in which he accused the Israeli government, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minster Yuval Steinitz of having "robbed me of everything." After reading it aloud, he scattered copies in his immediate vicinity.

"You can't even get rent support," he said, "Two Housing Ministry committees rejected me despite the fact I had a stroke and lost ability to work. I blame Israel's public servants: The National Insurance Institute.

"I blame the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuval Steinitz for the constant humiliation the citizens of Israel have to endure on a day-to-day basis. They take from the poor and give to the rich."

As you can see in the video below, members of the crowds surrounding him sprayed water on him as he flailed and threw their shirts down to try to tamp down the flames. Please view graphic content with discretion:

After he was taken away by ambulance, a group of nearby protestors declaimed his letter in solidarity.

Following a Sunday morning cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was careful to describe the immolation as "a great personal tragedy" and announced that welfare officials would look into his case.

Opposition Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich said that "brutal toughening of criteria for public housing and the lack of a public safety net have brought many like Moshe to a dead end and desperation."

Movement leaders, most in their 20s, still appeared shocked on Sunday morning. "I don't want to see any victims of this movement," said Stav Shaffir on an endless loop of morning news shows. "Violence will get us nowhere. His anguish is our anguish, but what he did is not who we are."