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Scuffles as Israeli MPs debate protests

Aug. 16, 2011 2:23 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 17, 2011 11:38 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Hundreds of Israeli youngsters scuffled with police outside parliament on Tuesday as MPs held a special debate on the huge cost-of-living protests sweeping the country.

The demonstrations were timed to coincide with a special parliamentary session called during the Knesset's summer recess, to debate the government's handling of a growing wave of social discontent over the spiraling cost of living.

The parliamentary session comes after a month of unprecedented nationwide protests against the high price of food, housing, education and health care which have seen hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets to demand change.

Opening the debate, opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Israel needed "a fundamental shift in its economic and social priorities."

"The street has exposed these problems and we must fight for the future of our children as well as for budgets which can be used to this end because there is no social justice in Israel," said Livni who heads the centrist Kadima party.

"The protesters are mostly young. They serve in the army, they have a degree, they work -- they have the right to know how their taxes are used. They have the right to live in dignity rather than to resign themselves to going abroad for lack of hope," she said.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz were to attend the debate, with minister without portfolio Benny Begin to give a response on behalf of the government.

As the debate kicked off, around 500 protesters staged a march from the city center towards parliament, waving black flags and placards reading "Israeli 2011: A rich country with poor citizens" and shouting "We want social justice!"

As they reached the Knesset, they suddenly began running towards the gates but were shoved back by a handful of parliamentary security guards and police, causing scuffles before they moved the protest to the nearby Rose Garden park.

Jerusalem police played down the event, with spokesman Shmulik Ben Ruby saying "a few protesters had tried to block the entrance to the Knesset" and were stopped. No one was arrested.

The unrest began in mid-July when disgruntled activists pitched protest tents in a wealthy district of Tel Aviv to illustrate their inability to afford housing in the city.

Their protest quickly snowballed into a much larger movement, tapping into deep frustration across Israel over the cost of living and income disparity.

The movement managed to bring at least 250,000 people into the streets across Israel on August 6, for the largest demonstrations over a social issue in Israel's history.

Polls show the movement has support from some 80 percent of the Israeli public, and Netanyahu has set up a committee headed by respected economist Manuel Trajtenberg to draft reform proposals.

But he has warned that Israel will not spend outside its current budget and that the sweeping and costly economic reforms championed by protesters could push the state into a financial crisis.

The demonstrators have reacted cautiously to Netanyahu's commission, welcoming the appointment of Trajtenberg, but also setting up their own alternative committee of experts, who will deliver their own proposed reforms within the next 10 days.

The debate on Tuesday will involve discussion of the social upheaval but the parliament is not expected to take action on any reforms until it returns fully from its summer recess in late October.
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