Behind the Headlines: ‘tent Cities’ Spread Through Israel, Becoming More Than a Place to Live

The proliferation of “tent cities” across Israel, launched by families left homeless by soaring rents, is rapidly fueling a popular protest movement against the government’s failed housing policies.

It is also a potential political and sociological bombshell that impinges on Israel’s major preoccupation of the moment: the mass absorption of Soviet olim.

In the Negev town of Beersheba, all along the coastal plain and in Jerusalem’s public parks, young Israeli couples, many with two or three small children, have pitched their tents in protest.

The recurring statement heard from the scores of Israeli families now living in the 14 tent camps that have popped up at various points around the country goes something like this:

“We have nothing against the new immigrants coming to Israel, but we will not sit quietly while they get flats and we don’t.”

There is a direct connection between the tent cities and the influx of immigrants.

Landlords are doubling or tripling their rents, because newcomers from the Soviet Union are given generous housing allowances, at least for their first year here. They are charged what the traffic will bear, and since it is public money, they willingly pay a year’s rent in advance.

The situation in a nutshell is that landlords reap a windfall, because housing is in desperately short supply.

Critics accuse the government of skewed priorities in the allocation of its resources. “We won’t move from here, not in one month nor in 10, unless a solution is found, and we’ll all have roofs over our heads,” said one family.

A NEW KIND OF ‘MA’ABARAH’

Malka and David Levy, a young Jerusalem couple with four children ranging in age from 3 to 8, have erected their tent in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross, opposite the Knesset building and in the shadows of the Israel Museum.

The so-called “Knesset ma’abarah” was built between Monday and Tuesday night. It consists of about 20 tents, some of them army issue and some loaned by the Jerusalem municipality. They are pitched on stony, dusty ground, beneath olive trees that give little shade.

Malka Levy, 32, knows what it is like to grow up in one of the infamous ma’abarot, the tin-hut transit camps that dotted the Israeli countryside and city lots during the last great wave of immigration in the 1950s. In those days, most of the immigrants were from North Africa and got no subsidized housing.

“But today, I’ll take even that,” said Levy, sitting outside her army-type tent in the blazing heat of a Jerusalem summer day.

Her children, on vacation from school and kindergarten, race around the tents, trying to amuse themselves while their parents sit outside, planning social activities and guard duty for the night.

Each tent is wired for electricity, supplied by the municipality. But there is only one hose supplying water and one portable lavatory provided by the city.

The Levys, however, are not used to much.

“Until now, the six of us lived in a tiny one-room flat in the Katamon,” Levy said, naming a neighborhood of southern Jerusalem notorious for its high crime rate.

She said they paid $200 a month, which their landlord now wants to raise to $400.

“The flat was falling apart, the paint was peeling off the walls and in the winter, the walls were dripping with dampness,” Levy told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

‘REALLY HAVE NO CHOICE’

Two of her four children suffer from serious asthmatic conditions requiring daily medication.

“We really have no choice,” she said, at the same time admonishing her youngest to go into the “sukkah, tent, home” for shelter against the strong sun.

But she is grateful to the Jerusalem municipality. “They supply the water, electricity, have given us tents and even helped us clean this place up. But they can’t help us solve our real problem: a home to bring our kids up in,” she said.

Another tent family in the Jerusalem camp is the Mizrachis.

Yitzhak (Yicko) Mizrachi, the 23-year old father of a 9-month-old baby boy, has a permanent job at the large Angel Bakery in Jerusalem.

“The highest salary I can get is 1,300 shekels (about $650) a month. My wife earns 800 shekels ($400) working at the Bank of Israel, and because I was unemployed for two years, I have a lot of debts,” Mizrachi said.

“I don’t even see my salary, because it just goes straight to the bank covering my overdraft.”

The Mizrachi family lived for a year in a Hat in Katamon, paying $250 a month rent. “It was hard to make it each month, but we did, living on the bare minimum. But one month ago,” Mizrachi related, “our landlord told us she’s raising the rent to $480 and demanding the rent a year in advance.”

The national headquarters of the Campaign of the Homeless, located in a 52-family Jerusalem encampment, issued its demands Wednesday.

They include realistic rents and rent control, government supervision of both rental and apartment purchase prices, government mortgages of up to 95 percent, and monthly payment schemes adjusted to the abilities of low-income families.

UNITS TO BE BUILT IN NEGEV

The campaign also had a warning for the government: If “you continue closing your cars and ignoring hundreds of thousands of homeless citizens’ cry for help, we will see you as guilty of this national failure and do everything in our power to erase your parties from the political map of Israeli” it said in a’ statement.

Dror Nissan, a 23-ycar-old activist in the “Knesset ma’abarah” insists the problem is not lack of funds in the national treasury.

“It is a question of priorities,” he said. “The question is what the money is used for.”

According to Jewish Agency figures, 25,000 housing units need to be built annually to meet natural population growth. With the current immigration expected to reach 150,000 a year, a minimum of 55,000 units per year will be needed.

The Housing Ministry has begun work on the infrastructure for some 1,800 new housing units in Beersheba, Arad, Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim, all communities in the Negev. The plan is to erect prefabricated houses at those sites. The ministry estimates they will be ready in five months.

NEXT STORY