JERUSALEM — At least a quarter of a million Israelis, fed up with the mounting cost of living, poured into the streets of the country's major cities Saturday night to demand that their leaders address their plight – and proving by their tremendous numbers that they will not go away.
The snowballing protest, which started out three weeks ago with a few 20-somethings pitching a tent encampment on a posh Tel Aviv street, has swiftly become a big headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by many middle class Israelis as too friendly to big business. An aide to the Israeli leader said the government would soon devise a program to break the monopolies and cartels he blames for Israel's economic ills.
Protesters appeared to have a more sweeping agenda on their minds. Traveling by car, bus, train and foot, some 230,000 Israelis, according to police estimates, descended on Tel Aviv to mount the largest social protest in the country's history. Young, old and middle-aged, they beat drums and waved flags, some chanting, "Social justice for the people" and "Revolution."
Some held signs reading "People before profits," "Rent is not a luxury," and "Working class heroes." In Jerusalem, more than 30,000 protesters gathered outside Netanyahu's residence after streaming past some of the most expensive real estate in the city. Other protests took place in further flung cities in Israel's north and south, drawing about 10,000 people.
This third straight Saturday night of pocketbook protests was widely seen as a litmus test of the strength of the grassroots revolt. Similar demonstrations last week drew 150,000 people across this country of 7.7 million. A smaller turnout this week would have signaled weakness; a bigger turnout would send a clear message that the government could not afford to ignore.
Moshe Levy and his wife Naama are middle-aged Jerusalemites who have a combined monthly income of almost $6,000 but are overdrawn at the bank by $9,000.
They said they don't often go to demonstrations, "but I think this one is important," Moshe Levy said. He said he worries for his four children. "I hope their future will be better than mine," he said.
Ehud Rotem, a 26-year-old student and bartender who also lives in Jerusalem, sees a bleak future for people of his generation.
"It's hard to live in this country, we go to the army, work and pay high taxes and still don't earn enough" to make ends meet, he said.
The protests initially targeted soaring housing prices, but quickly morphed into a sweeping expression of rage against a wide array of economic issues, including the cost of food, gasoline, education and wages.
The protesters' demands have resonated broadly in a middle class that has found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Taxes are high, market competition is low, and salaries haven't kept pace with the price rises – even as Israel's leading economic indicators show the economy is thriving in a way that most developed countries would envy.
The protests have stunned the government, which had been preoccupied by stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians. Polls released last week showed Netanyahu's approval ratings have plunged while support for the protesters was high. Although those same polls showed Netanyahu's coalition government maintaining its majority, in recent days, larger numbers of his right-wing camp have begun showing up at protests.
Netanyahu has announced a series of bureaucratic reforms including freeing up land for construction and offering tax breaks. He also promised to set up a committee to address protesters complaints.
"The prime minister believes strongly that these claims are valid, that we have artificially high prices that are there predominantly because of monopolistic practice and cartels," Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said as protesters were chanting their demands. "The government hopes to push through a series of reforms that will bring down the prices that Israeli consumers pay."
But the promised reforms have only increased anger in the streets, with protesters predicting the measures would not help them. A Netanyahu-championed law enacted earlier this week to streamline construction procedures was roundly denounced by protesters who said it would do nothing to ensure affordable housing.
"The prime minister hasn't told us anything," said Stav Shafir, one of the protest leaders. "We are going to keep protesting, we want solutions, we want real willingness by the government to work with the people and answer our demands, until then we will be here."
AP correspondent Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.