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‘Israeli Bouazizi’ Raises Questions

TEL AVIV, Jul 15 2012 (IPS) - During a march Saturday marking one year since social protests engulfed Israel, a man silently set himself on fire, leaving behind him a painful “I accuse!” letter that exposes widespread disillusionment in the face of the immense expectation for change, and the abyss between the people and the State.

Mobile phones captured the horror – a student haranguing the crowd about the deficiency of the public transportation system, suddenly interrupted by a clamour and a blaze.

An eyewitness said “someone read out a letter; then doused himself in gasoline.” Panicked demonstrators poured water on the man.

Suffering from second- and third-degree burns over 94 percent of his body, he’s been hospitalised at the Sheba Medical Centre’s intensive care unit, fighting for his life.

“I can’t afford medication or rent. I paid millions in taxes; I served in the army, in the reserve. The state robbed me, left me with nothing; I can’t even live month to month. I won’t be homeless,” he wrote in the letter whose copies were found on the ground by fellow demonstrators.

Moshe Silman, 57, had already fought for much of his life, like many in Israel’s strained middle class. His predicament is that of many citizens for whom Israel, hailed during its first three decades as a welfare state, has for the past three decades transformed into a liberal economy devoid of an adequate public safety net.

A social activist son of a Holocaust survivor, Silman used to own a messenger service in Tel Aviv. But his business went downhill and collapsed in 2005, partly because of the recession during the second Palestinian Intifadah uprising.

He eventually sold his flat to reimburse debts contracted to the Tax Authority and the National Insurance Institute (NII), became a taxi driver, but couldn’t make ends meet. His bank account was seized – his savings used to pay interest rates, the total of which amounting by then to hundreds of thousands of Shekels.

A year-and-a-half ago, Silman suffered a stroke.

He moved to Haifa where life’s more affordable, living off a Shekel 2,300 (580 dollar) monthly disability stipend – 56 percent of the minimum wage.

Partially incapacitated, he’d be seen sitting in at the local NII and Housing Ministry offices, pleading his case for health assistance and subsidised housing, to no avail.

Unresponsive bureaucratic procedures made Silman ineligible for rent support because he previously owned an apartment. “Two housing committees rejected my request,” he testified in the letter.

He was currently living for free with a friend, but was due to vacate the one-room apartment next week. The “Rabbis for Human Rights” NGO tried to help him. “He didn’t want to harm himself,” insists Idit Lev, one of the organisation’s activists. “He only wanted a roof over his head.”

“He told us he’d do something extreme,” recalls Ofer Barkan, a social activist who knows him.

“I blame Israel’s public servants; I blame the State of Israel; I blame both villains, (Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu and (Finance Minister) Yuval Steinitz, for the constant humiliation citizens endure day-by-day, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.”

“A great personal tragedy,” commented Netanyahu at the opening the weekly cabinet meeting while instructing the relevant ministries to “look into the case.”

Yet, the emphasis on the term ‘personal’ couldn’t be less appropriate.

Opposition head and Labour party chairwoman Shelli Yechimovitch lambasted “the brutal toughening of criteria for public housing and the lack of a public safety net.”

But she cautioned, “This dreadful, extreme act… definitely mustn’t be seen as a symbol of the protest.”

“This horrifying incident should serve as a wake-up call,” countered Daphne Leef, one of the social leaders, urging for “the need to achieve results and quickly, because more and more people are losing themselves in the face of the cruelty of the system.”

Until Saturday, the “wake-up call” had been heard with less intensity than last year when, on Jul. 14, Leef and a group of activists set up tent on Rothschild Boulevard, a plush area located in the city centre, in protest against unaffordable housing, exorbitant rents, the high cost of living.

Two months later, the action culminated with half a million Israelis rallying around the call “The people demand social justice!”

The call was then heard loud and clear. Netanyahu established a committee chaired by renowned economist Manuel Trachtenberg, whose task was to recommend structural socio-economic reforms.

Trachtenberg’s report indeed led to the enactment of a reform of the taxation system; free public education was instituted for all children from age three; custom duties and purchase taxes were gradually reduced, thus lowering prices.

Yet, according to Housing Ministry figures, needy families must wait seven years before receiving a subsidised apartment. And, cheap housing is still earmarked mainly for the ultra-orthodox community while the middle class carries the burden of work, taxation and military service.

Silman’s desperate act drew obvious comparisons with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010, unbeknownst to him setting an Arab Spring of pro-democracy revolutions.

“Will Bouazizi’s Israeli equivalent inspire the government to do some soul searching? Will he inspire some kind of rehabilitation for the system that pushed him to this terrible act? It’s already possible to guess the outcome of the investigation – the system worked the way it was supposed to,” predicted Or Kashti in the liberal daily Haaretz.

Meanwhile, a day after the self-immolation of the new symbol of Israel’s struggle for social justice, Prof. Ze’ev Rotstein, director of the Sheba Medical Centre, confirmed that there was a lack of available beds in the hospital’s burns unit.

 
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