Knesset Members Back Rent Freeze As Protests over Housing Escalate

Some 63 members of Knesset, representing all political parties, signed a petition Wednesday urging the government to impose a national freeze on rents and said they would sponsor a bill to enforce that goal.

The action came in the wake of increasingly volatile protests over skyrocketing rents, caused by the influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

The acute housing shortage has forced many young Israelis to abandon apartments they can no longer afford. Growing numbers are moving into makeshift tents, both to seek shelter and to graphically demonstrate their plight.

The drama intensified this week, as a group of newly homeless Israelis who had climbed to a rooftop in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, threatened to commit mass suicide.

They ended their action Wednesday, when Mayor Ehud Kinamon promised them a meeting with Housing Minister Ariel Sharon.

One of the protesters remarked, “If you don’t pound on the table, nobody hears you in Israel.”

The group of 30, including pregnant women and small children, had climbed to the roof of the Bat Yam City Hall on Tuesday night and threatened to blow themselves up by igniting cooking gas. Some of the demonstrators threw burning tires and firebombs from the rooftop.

At daybreak, the demonstrators set up barricades at the building’s entrance and would not let municipal workers enter. Only journalists with press cards were allowed inside.

In front of the building, some 100 families had set up tents, creating a virtual tent city. By the end of the day, the young couples left the municipal building, hoping to meet Sharon shortly.

PROTESTS IN OTHER LOCALITIES

Police said they would take legal measures against the demonstrators.

However, just as this crisis had been solved, a number of homeless Israelis took over the municipal building in Givat Shmuel, near Bnei Brak.

In Herzliya, the municipality threatened to use legal measures to evacuate a local tent settlement.

The protests escalated after Israel’s High Court of Justice on Tuesday invalidated emergency powers the Cabinet had given July 1 to Sharon to deal with the housing crisis.

The court, responding to a petition filed by Knesset member Avraham Poraz of the center-left Shinui party, ruled that the government could not bypass existing laws with emergency regulations, saying existing legal remedies were sufficient to solve the crisis.

The court decision may have triggered a new wave of pessimism among Israelis having trouble finding affordable housing. Many had been optimistic that Sharon’s “bulldozer approach” would speed the construction of new apartments.

In New York, an official at the center of efforts to absorb Soviet Jewish immigrants maintained Wednesday that 70,000 additional housing units “will still be built,” regardless of the ban on emergency measures.

“The Supreme Court believed that it can be done without special emergency measures. Whatever legislation needs to be passed to get it done, the Knesset will pass it,” said Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives.

Dinitz, who was addressing Hadassah’s national convention, seemed perturbed by recent protests over the housing shortage in Israel.

“This is politics,” he said, insisting that the shortage of apartments “has nothing to do with aliyah. It has existed for years. If anything, the aliyah will help solve the problem,” he said.

(JTA staff writer Elena Neuman in New York contributed to this report.)

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