Middle East

Israel announces housing reforms amid large protests

Tent protest in Tel Aviv
Image caption Demonstrators in Tel Aviv blocked off a busy road junction with tents

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced a series of reforms to address the country's growing housing crisis.

He said his plans would bring "huge changes" and significantly improve the housing situation of young couples, students and demobilised soldiers.

Protests over a lack of affordable housing have continued for 12 days.

Demonstrations have taken place outside parliament and protesters have blocked roads in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Speaking at a news conference, Mr Netanyahu acknowledged there was a "real problem" and said that new government committees would be set up to deal with it.

He promised to cut bureaucracy which he said was "unique to Israel", improve public transportation and promote low-rent housing.

The prime minister said the applications to build more than 50,000 new homes would be fast-tracked over the next year and a half.

A new poll published by Israel's Haaretz newspaper suggests there is wide support for ongoing demonstrations over high housing prices and soaring living costs which have involved thousands of Israelis - with some young people sleeping outside in tent camps.

The figures indicated 87% of people backed the protests while more than half said they were unhappy with the way Mr Netanyahu had handled the issue.

Under mounting pressure, the prime minister delayed a planned trip to Poland to announce his reforms.

Economic discontent

There are currently several protests about economic conditions under way in Israel, leading some commentators to suggest the country is experiencing a summer of discontent.

Complaints over housing costs have become widespread, largely because supply has not kept pace with demand, pushing up prices. Between December 2007 and August 2010, housing prices jumped an inflation-adjusted 35% while rental rates also rose steadily.

Image caption An Israeli boycott of cottage cheese kicked off a summer of economic protests

Doctors have stepped up a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. Those in public hospitals are on strike while a small group of medics is undertaking a four-day march from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem.

The Israeli Medical Association chief has announced a hunger strike to demand action from the prime minister, who is also responsible for the health portfolio.

Since 2004, Israel's annual economic growth has averaged 4.5%. In the same period, unemployment has fallen from about 11% to 6%.

However, there is growing public anger over perceived social inequality, injustice and corruption.

Recently a Facebook campaign initiated a consumer boycott of cottage cheese - an Israeli staple food. This was widely reported in the Israeli media and soon led to a drop in prices.

Some suggest this has helped inspire other protests. Others believe that revolutions in Israel's Arab neighbours have also served as a powerful reminder of people power.

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