Protesters Collide In Tel Aviv
MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Israel, one boulevard has become a center for all sorts of protesters. More than a dozen different groups are joining and colliding in Tel Aviv, in what has become the largest protest movement about domestic issues in Israeli history. Protesters are threatening to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But as Sheera Frenkel reports, they face deep divisions within their own ranks.
SHEERA FRENKEL: The scene was calm on Rothschild Boulevard Friday morning, with several hundred people milling around the tents that have been erected there. Many seemed to be gathered as if for a festival, hoisting guitars on their backs and sitting in groups to sip beer and dream up witty slogans. On Saturday night, this street will be the site of a march that protest leaders hope will set a new record for grassroots demonstrations in the Jewish State. Last week, there were 150,000 marchers. Tomorrow, they want to reach 1 million. Twenty-eight-year-old Talia Gorodess(ph) is one of the protest organizers.
TALIA GORODESS: I was here from almost day one, and each day just see energy is growing. More and more people are coming to the streets, people that are not used to being, you know, active, involved citizens, and that is giving me a lot of hope.
FRENKEL: In the last week, a myriad of organizations and political movements have added their voices to the fray. From cattle ranchers demanding government subsidies on meat to vegetarians pleading for animal rights. Rothschild Boulevard has become a sort of speaker's corner for everyday Israelis. But the dominant theme remains the high cost of housing in Israel, with protesters declaring that they will continue to camp out here on one of Israel's most expensive streets until housing becomes more affordable for the average Israeli.
Gorodess says that while new groups with different demands are welcome here, there is concern that competing interests could tear apart the movement from within.
GORODESS: A lot of sectors are going to try and take this protest and kind of market it or work towards promoting their goal, and I think we need to avoid that.
FRENKEL: Among the latest to join are Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank. They said they wanted to show solidarity with the protesters and that they, too, suffer from the high cost of housing. The settlers want the government to solve the housing issue by expanding the settlements. And they have secured the backing of 42 members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. But the arrival of the settlers incensed Assi Rothbard(ph) , who has been living in the protest camp for the past week with his three young children.
ASSI ROTHBARD: They are doing the smartest thing that they can do because they want to destroy the protest. So the best thing they can do is build a tent here. Because these lunatic extreme settlers, I have nothing with them.
FRENKEL: Rothbard notes that the settlers have already received subsidized housing. Figures published by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics show that Israel spends 15 percent of its housing budget on the settlements, though less than 4 percent of Israelis live there. Haim Ramon, a liberal lawmaker, says the government spends twice as much per capita on the settlers as it does on other Israelis. Rothbard says the issue is one of priorities.
ROTHBARD: They are living on a land that not belong to them. So I do not think that they have a right to protest. And, of course, they get a lot of resources from the people who really work - the people living in Tel Aviv.
FRENKEL: Many of the protesters here acknowledge their liberal and left-wing sympathies, but say they are not gunning for the right-wing government of Israel's prime minister. Netanyahu's approval rating has already dropped to 32 percent, the lowest since he took office. But protest leaders insist their aim is not to remove Netanyahu but to change the government's priorities. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Tel Aviv.
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