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Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrate for financial reform

By Guy Azriel and Deborah Doft
  • Middle class say they're only surviving, not living
  • Cost of 3-room apartment rose 40% since 2007
  • "You just cannot suffer anymore"

(CNN) -- Some quarter of a million Israelis took to the streets Saturday night in protests against the mounting cost of living for the middle class in one of the largest social outcries in Israeli history.

Demonstrations took place in many cities across the Jewish state, the largest in Tel Aviv.

Marching under the slogan, "the people ask for social justice," students, young families and older Israelis called for the Israeli government to rethink financial reforms that they say have squeezed the middle class. Protesters say this is a grassroots movement, not related to one political ideology.

At times the mood on the street took on a carnival-like atmosphere with some people dressed as clowns, crowds singing and banging on drums. But the message was serious.

"The middle class in Israel finds it hard to live here, it's hard to raise children, it is very hard to find suitable apartments. You just cannot suffer anymore, you just have to come to the streets and protest," Noga Klinger, a protester, told CNN.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the price of a three-room apartment has increased more than 40% since 2007.

Despite a strong Israeli economy, the middle class says they are being left out.

"Everybody who works, even with a degree from university, he doesn't have enough money to survive, we are all the time surviving instead of living," another demonstrator told CNN. She accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of giving tax money "to the tycoons and to the rich people and nothing comes (back) to us."

In a bid to ease the pressure, Netanyahu presented a plan last week to form a roundtable panel to find ways of easing the financial burden on Israeli citizens.

The announcement had little effect on the momentum of the movement. One protester told CNN that he believes after Saturday night's protest the government "will have to take us seriously."

"There is a genuine popular uprising about inequalities in Israeli society," said political analyst David Horovitz. "The prime minister feels threatened, he feels that a certain part of the middle class, and some of the working class are really angry with him. They feel there is too close a connection between the political higher echelons and the concentrated ownership of much of Israel's most profitable assets.

"Where the protesters are missing a trick here is that they are not campaigning strongly for electoral reform here. A lot of the ills of Israel and a lot of the inequalities of Israel are a consequence of a very problematic political system -- pure proportional representation -- parties at the mercy of other parties with special interests. We need political reform here," Horovitz said.

Israel has one of the strongest economies in the region, with an unemployment rate of 5.7% and growth of 4.7% in 2010.

The protests began on July 14 when a group of activists set up tents in an affluent neighborhood in the center of Tel Aviv and quickly evolved into tens of tent cities across the country demanding affordable housing and calling for social justice.