Settlers a familiar source of conflict in Israel's summer of discontent

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2011 

TEL AVIV, Israel — The vast protest movement that's swept Israel in recent weeks over everything from high housing costs to the availability of heath care is set to culminate Saturday in what organizers are hoping will be the largest demonstration yet: a nationwide march over high rents that they vow will eclipse the 150,000 demonstrators who gathered last week.

But the variety of the causes is leading to divisions among the demonstrators, who've turned tony Rothschild Boulevard in Israel's largest city into a vast tent city.

"At the beginning it was fine, but then they noticed each other's signs and some arguments began, and next thing you knew people were shouting at each other," said Limor Asaf, 21, who was taking part Thursday in a protest by vegetarians advocating animal rights when her group got into a tussle with a demonstration by the Cattle Farmers Association that was demanding government assistance for dairy farms.

By far the greatest split is over the participation in the protests of Israel's settlement movement and other right-wing groups aligned with it. Protest leaders say that undercuts their goal of keeping politics out of the demonstrations.

"We came to represent something that anybody in Israel could get behind," said Roi Noiman, one of the protest organizers.

The announcement that settlement groups were supporting the protests was followed by petitions by dozens of Israeli lawmakers for the country to solve its housing crisis by accelerating building in the settlements.

The move angered many of the protesters, who said the right-wing groups had "missed the point entirely."

"We already spend too much on the settlements and all the soldiers that have to defend them. We want the government to change its priorities so that the average person — not the settler — is the focus of the budget," said Avner Cohen, a 22-year-old student.

More than 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on land that Palestinians say is earmarked for their future state. The growth of the settlements has proved the main stumbling block to peace talks, with Palestinians refusing to conduct negotiations with Israel unless it freezes all new building in the settlements.

According to figures published in Israel's central bureau of statistics, about 4 percent of Israeli citizens live in the West Bank settlements, while Israel's Housing Ministry spends 15 percent of its budget on projects there.

"That is the discrepancy right there. They spend more on settlers than they do on the average Israeli. They make it attractive to live in the settlements, and continue to create political obstacles by being there," Cohen said.

Former Cabinet minister Haim Ramon noted that middle-class Israelis are forced to make do with less than settlers in the West Bank.

"The government subsidizes housing, transportation, infrastructure. Per capita they give twice as much there as the national average,'' Ramon said. "If the government had treated the rest of Israel the way it treats (the settlers) there wouldn't have been a protest today."

Protest leaders have tried to quiet the disagreements between the groups by reminding them they are there to fight for the greater cause of more affordable living across Israel.

"There are a lot of problems and different political opinions. But we need to put them aside for now," Asaf said.

She pointed out that the groups were angry that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had characterized them as "populists," a word they felt he used to try to set them apart from the country's mainstream rather than accept them as a movement that represented the country's middle class.

Netanyahu has tried to reach out to the protesters with a series of compromises, but so far his suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.

"We want a permanent change in the system. We don't want short-term fixes," Asaf said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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