JERUSALEM, July 20 (JTA) — A single mother´s 120-mile hike to protest government cuts to social welfare benefits has captivated public and media attention and spawned similar treks around the country. While the growing tent encampment set up by Mitzpe Ramon resident Vicky Knafo and her comrades on the sidewalk across from the Finance Ministry building in Jerusalem is becoming a pilgrimage site for supporters and well-wishers, some observers question whether the single mothers will be able to translate their campaign into a political force capable of affecting economic policy. The protests come in response to budget cuts pushed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aimed at liberalizing and jump-starting Israel´s economy. Israel´s economy — hurt by nearly three years of violence with the Palestinians — has shrunk by 1 percent each of the last two years, and unemployment is approaching an all-time high of 11 percent. Knafo, a 43-year-old mother of three, embarked on her weeklong trek from the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem to protest government cuts to income supplements, which she said represent the difference between subsistence and starvation for single mothers. The gravelly-voiced, curly-headed Knafo said she was propelled by her personal need. But her undertaking inspired other women — and some men — to set off on similar treks from around the country. They include Ilana Azulai, an Arad resident who was accompanied by her 17-year-old wheelchair-bound son, as well as Aliza Ezra, a mother of three who walked from Shlomi in the Upper Galilee. Describing the economic hardships the women face, Ezra said that her National Insurance Institute allowance last month was cut from less than $800 to less than $600. "I don´t know what to pay first," she told the daily Ha´aretz. "Food, electricity, water or the telephone." Knafo and the other single parents cut heroic figures, social activist and former legislator Tamar Gozansky told Israel Radio. Unless their protest evolves into a "mass" campaign, however, nothing will change, she said. But Zahara Antavi, a founder of the Four Mothers group that lobbied for an Israeli army withdrawal from southern Lebanon, said the protests could suceed. The number of families who will be affected by the cuts is not insignificant. According to the National Insurance Institute, 112,000 single-parent families, with children up to age 21, live in Israel. About 64 percent receive some form of state support. According to Ha´aretz, 87,000 single-parent mothers with children up to age 17 live in Israel. About 76 percent of them work outside the home. As the grass-roots movement gathers steam, the Treasury has tried to stress that the aim of the measures is to shift the emphasis on income support away from welfare and toward job incentives. Netanyahu recently unveiled a plan that he said is aimed at helping single mothers go back to work. The proposal included providing a grants for up to one year for women who work at least one-third time. The plan also calls for generating employment for the single mothers through public works projects. Critics said that the grants are only short-term solutions while the stipends would continue to be cut, and that the job incentives are also temporary. In a related development, a public committee has been formed to review extraordinary cases of single parents. And certain sectors in the economy have pledged to try to help find work for the single mothers. These included the Israel Hotel Association, which pledged to find 2,500 jobs for them during the summer and Jewish holiday season, Ha´aretz reported. Knafo, who is employed, rejected what she said were efforts by the Treasury to paint the single mothers as parasites who prefer welfare support to work. According to the plan, some of the most severe austerity measures will be cuts in income supplements for working mothers earning the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday gave his backing to Netanyahu´s efforts and did not open a Cabinet discussion on the protest. But the single mothers appear to have a sympathetic ear from President Moshe Katsav, who met with a delegation on Sunday and heard about their plight. Katsav was quoted as saying that he doubted the government was aware of the plight of the women and those in similar situations. He said he raised the matter with Netanyahu, who repeated his offer to have the ministry´s director general meet with the demonstrators — a proposal the protesters have previously rejected, Israel Radio reported.
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