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What happened to Tel Aviv's tent city?

From Leone Lakhani, CNN
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
Israeli demonstrators block a main junction with tents as they protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in Tel Aviv, July, 2011.
Israeli demonstrators block a main junction with tents as they protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in Tel Aviv, July, 2011.
  • Daphni Leef, who started the J14 movement in Israel, was partly inspired by Arab uprisings
  • Leef was angered by Tel Aviv's high property prices: "I don't want to play by these rules"
  • A year on, protests against the cost of living continue but are more muted
  • Mayor Ron Huldai says high cost of housing is a sign of Tel Aviv's success

Tel Aviv, Israel (CNN) -- A year ago, nearly half a million protesters took to the streets across Israel in perhaps the largest social justice movement in the country's history.

It all started when 25-year-old Daphni Leef pitched a tent at the end of Tel Aviv's prestigious Rothschild Boulevard after being evicted from her apartment and failing to find another she could afford in the city's pricey market.

"What happened was I went to see one apartment too many," said Leef. "I was really p---ed off, and I've had it. I kind of felt like I don't want to play by these rules anymore."

She was quickly joined by hundreds of others, in what became known as Tel Aviv's tent city. In September last year, close on 500,000 people took to the streets demanding changes to the social and economic systems.

A year on, Leef is living in an apartment in nearby Jaffa and the movement she became a symbol for is more muted -- but a hardy core of protesters continues to demand change.

Israeli activist demands social change
Tel Aviv mayor backs protests

Leef, whose movement became known as J14 after its inception on July 14, 2011, is still recognized and greeted on the streets, albeit as a reluctant celebrity.

She said she was inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, and like them, started writing about her grievances through social media.

"It came from the gut, and because it came from the gut, I think people related to it," she said. "I think most of the time people don't want to make the first move because it's scary, because you don't want to look like a fool."

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The government responded with measures it said would resolve the housing shortage and by setting up a committee to address the issues raised by the protesters.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who has been in office since 1998, was criticized by some for what they saw as a heavy-handed police response to the protests.

Because it came from the gut, I think people related to it.
Daphni Leef, protester

Huldai says the rise in the cost of housing was a sign of the city's success.

"Before people didn't find it attractive to live in Tel Aviv, now everybody wants to live here so the price of real estate goes up."

He added: "We are in the middle of creating three projects for affordable housing in the city of Tel Aviv. We are doing lots of things we can. I'm trying to manage a very complicated situation as best as I can."

For many, however, the issues that sparked the J14 movement are still as pressing as they were a year ago.

Amit Adler, a 40-year-old writer taking part in recent protests, said: "Now we are politically matured and we understand in order to change the cost of housing and living, you must change the system."

Everybody wants to live here so the price of real estate goes up
Ron Huldai, Mayor of Tel Aviv

Dani Eger, the 23-year-old organizer of a recent protest, said despite the lower turnout this year, passions run just as highly.

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"Numbers are not the issue because many people understood that these protests on the streets are not helping because the government is not listening," he said.

Leef too says she is not disheartened by the lower profile of this year's protests, comparing it with the year after the French student protests of May 1968.

"First of all it's like Dany le Rouge (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) from the revolution in France in '68. He says every May '68 has a May '69, so you can't go back.

"If you want to change the system, you have to create new models."

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer: @SchamsCNN, writer Catriona Davies: @catrionadavies and digital producer Mairi Mackay: @mairicnn.

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