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Agence France-Presse

Massive 'Social Justice' Protests Sweep Israel

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Israeli activists march on a main road in Tel Aviv, Israel July 30, 2011. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday to protest against the high cost of living and demand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu undertake sweeping economic reforms.

TEL AVIV -- Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in 10 cities to protest against the high cost of living and to demand ''social justice, not charity''.

Police and media estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 people demonstrated on Saturday. More than 50,000 people marched in Tel Aviv; about 10,000 protested in the northern city of Haifa, and in Jerusalem 15,000 demonstrators congregated outside the residence of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, waving placards that read: ''A whole generation wants a future.''

''I came because I cannot make ends meet, and taxes end up in the pockets of the rich,'' one protester, who runs a nursery school, said.

Demonstrations against high rents and house prices have spread in recent weeks, with protesters setting up tent villages and road blocks.

The protesters, mostly secular youths, are demanding affordable housing and denouncing a deterioration in public services, principally healthcare and education.

On Thursday protesters occupied the roof of the Tel Aviv stock exchange, a day after the powerful Histadrut trade union threw its support behind the demonstrators.

''If, by Saturday evening, the Prime Minister has failed to meet our secretary general, Ofer Eini, to discuss solutions to lift this social crisis, Histadrut will use all means at our disposal to support the demands of the protesters,'' a union spokeswoman said.

She would not say if Histadrut would instruct its its members to join a general strike announced by Israel's Union of Local Authorities. Today's one-day strike will shut down local authority offices and halt rubbish collections.

Since 2004 Israel's economic growth rate has averaged 4.5 per cent, while unemployment has fallen from almost 11 per cent to about 6 per cent over the same period.

However, the gap between Israel's rich and poor is among the widest in the Western world. In 2011 Israel ranked fifth for unequal income distribution among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Mr Netanyahu has cancelled a visit to Poland this week to deal with the unrest. He has promised housing reforms, which protesters say are inadequate.

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