A Tel Aviv 'tent city'
© Uriel Sinai/GettyA Tel Aviv 'tent city'. Similar areas have appeared in 40 towns across Israel, and there have been countless small demonstrations.

Grassroots campaign calling for social justice emerges in Israel as thousands protest against cost of living

Tent villages are to be pitched in up to a dozen Israeli-Arab towns on Friday as momentum behind Israel's grassroots campaign for social justice continues to build and unite disparate sections of society. Taxi drivers blocked a major road in Tel Aviv on Thursday protesting over the cost of diesel, and parents planned "stroller protests" in the early evening demanding the cost of childcare and baby equipment be reduced.

On Wednesday dairy farmers, army reservists, animal rights activists and West Bank settlers all held separate protests in Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, the centre of the nationwide movement. In Jerusalem, protesters blocked roads leading to the Knesset (parliament). Further demonstrations have been called across the country for Saturday following last week's marches, which attracted around 150,000 people, almost unprecedented in a country with a population of 7 million.

Protesters are uniting over the high costs of housing, rearing children, fuel, electricity and food but the dominant slogan has been: "The people demand social justice."

"The protest is still growing," said Stav Shaffir, 26, one of the leaders. "Every day I get phone calls from new tent cities." Shaffir, a masters student, was one of the first to pitch a tent three weeks ago in protest at the high rents.

At first, she said, "I felt a bit guilty about starting a protest over housing. I didn't feel it was the most important issue for us." The Knesset had just passed a law prohibiting boycott movements. "People were talking about the end of democracy. That seemed more important than housing."

Plus, she said, "The sense here that we're living in a war zone, traumatised by terror - it's like we're not allowed to talk about 'small' issues, day-to-day stuff."

The first night there were a few hundred protesters, with a smaller number pitching tents. Now, hundreds of tents and shelters - along with kitchens, toilets, a kindergarten, debating circles, art exhibitions - stretch along the length of the prosperous avenue. Tent villages have appeared in 40 towns and alongside the major marches last Saturday, there have been countless small demonstrations on multiple issues involving tens of thousands of people.

An opinion poll earlier this week said 91% of the Israeli public backed the campaign. The widespread support, according to Shaffir, is the result of consensus-building: "Many of us have made a lot of compromises on our own ideologies to gain consensus. We have put egos aside, and agreed not to talk about more political issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or settlements. We have said: 'Let's focus on something that will bring everyone together,' - and it's worked."

When a group of rightwing nationalists from West Bank settlements came to Tel Aviv earlier this week to promote settlement expansion as a solution to the housing problem, Shaffir was firm in telling them they were welcome to join the debate but "settlements are not part of the Israeli consensus, and so are not part of the solution that has to work for everyone".

Israelis aggrieved at the cost of living understood the connection between the amount of money the government spent on security and the issues leading them onto the streets, Shaffir said. "People talk about it all the time. But security also means education, health, housing. We don't want to be controlled by fear. People here think they have no right to do anything [on social issues] in case other people think that's against your country."

After almost three weeks, the protesters demanded a reduction in indirect taxes and a tax increase for high earners, rent controls, free education from the age of three months, limits on privatisation, and an increase in the minimum wage. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has acknowledged the "wave of populism" sweeping the country but is reluctant to make concessions, and his strategy appears to be to express sympathy while riding out the protests in the hope that attention will switch to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September.

Shaffir said she was happy the protests were bringing together groups traditionally on opposing sides: "Left and right; religious and secular; Arabs and Jews."

A tent village in the mixed area of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, had "brought tears to my eyes", she said. "People found themselves, Arabs and Jews, sitting together in tents every evening sharing problems and ideas."

There has been some criticism in the media of the "self-appointed leaders" of the protests, dubbed the "Secret Seven".

Shaffir said: "It's true, who are we to be leaders? My role here is to stop bigger organisations taking control. Every day I stand with my hands in front of me stopping interests from taking over this beautiful thing. But everyone who wants to be a leader here is a leader."

Back on Rothschild Boulevard, three teenage girls played cards in a tent they had erected only the day before. Why had they come to join the protest?

"The whole system, the whole way things work," said Shahal Weissman, 17. "We don't know what will happen, but this is only the beginning."