Last updated: 31 July, 2011

Israel PM creates task force after prices protests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday ordered the creation of a task force charged with finding ways to alleviate the cost of living, a day after huge protests.

At least 100,000 people took to the streets in cities across Israel on Saturday night in the latest show of force by a protest movement that has exposed deep anger in society about the cost of living and income disparity.

At the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he would name “a team of ministers who will set up a round-table discussion with representatives of various sectors to allow them to share their concerns.”

“The ministers will be charged with creating a practical plan to ease the financial burden on Israeli citizens, which will be presented to the Israeli government for approval and implementation,” his office said in a statement.

“We must act seriously and responsibly to effect changes in economic priorities and tackle real hardships,” Netanyahu said.

It seemed unlikely that the announcement would be enough to ease anger in the short term and tamp down protests over the cost of everything from housing to child care.

Even as Netanyahu met with his cabinet, members of the Israeli Medical Association doctors’ union gathered outside parliament as part of their ongoing protest in support of better wages and working conditions.

And media reported that activists were gathering support for two protest actions — a general strike on Monday that has already gained the backing of the local authorities’ union, and a plan for a mass withdrawal of cash from banks on August 8 to protest against high banking and credit card fees.

The protests are the largest demonstrations over social issues that Israel has seen at least since the early 1970s when thousands of people, led by a group called the Black Panthers, took to the streets to protest against racial discrimination suffered by Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

The upheaval began earlier this summer as Israelis launched a boycott of their much-loved cottage cheese in response to the rising cost of the local staple.

The action, organised on Facebook and given wide coverage in the media, managed to bring about a swift drop in the price of the foodstuff, emboldening activists who were already planning to protest over the high cost of housing.

In mid-July, a small group of mostly young protesters, including students and recently discharged soldiers, began setting up a tent city in the middle of Tel Aviv to illustrate their inability to afford housing in the coastal town.

Their protest quickly gathered steam, with similar tent cities popping up in other cities and different sectors of society emerging to share their economic discontent.

Since 2004, Israel’s economic growth rate has averaged 4.5 percent, while unemployment has fallen to around six percent from close to 11 percent over the same period.

But the gaps between Israel’s rich and poor are among the widest in the Western world. In 2011, Israel ranked fifth for unequal income distribution among the 34 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.