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In one of the stores lining Tel Aviv's Downtown Square, a pair of Miu Miu pumps adorned with raspberry and pink paillettes are half off at 900 New Israeli Shekels (about $215). Kikar Hamedina, as the "square" is called in Hebrew, is actually a circle, the largest, most elegant roundabout in the city. It's ringed with designer boutiques both foreign and IsraeliGucci, Gaultier, Helmut Langand coffee bars peddling $5 iced cappuccinos; the center is adorned with flowering shrubs and a large fountain. And a shantytown.
About 50 men, women, and children with nowhere else to go live in the Kikar Hamedina, which they have renamed with a large banner "Kikar Halechem," or Bread Square. They have been here almost a year. In July, a municipal court temporarily blocked the city from evicting them, but a Supreme Court ruling expected as early as this week could give police the power to clear them out.
For now, their settlement consists of some camper buses; an outdoor kitchen, under a tarp and powered by a gasoline generator; several tents in various stages of repair; and some tables and chairs set in the shade. Life-size effigies hang from the trees, bearing the legends in Hebrew "Died of Hunger," "Died of Humiliation," and "Avtelei" (a play on words meaning both "unemployment" and "father-hanging"). Tel Aviv residents walk their dogs and shop for camisoles not 50 feet away, scarcely glancing at the Kikar Halechem or its inhabitants.
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Yisrael Tuitu, 38, a dignified-looking man with close-cropped hair and a sweet expression, greets a visitor with a simple "I am the leader here." A cold liter of Coke is fetched from a nearby kiosk and Tuitu unpacks his long story of grievance and activism.
"I go to the army when I am 18, in 1983. When I am 19 and a half, in the Golani, I have an accident. September 1984. I am in the hospital for 14 months. Leg, back, head." He pulls his eyelid down to show a scar, a short row of healed stitches. Meanwhile, flies swarm around the table, Tuitu's cell phone rings regularly, and a snaggletoothed old woman named Valentina laments her fate on a bench two or three feet away. A man named Mark occasionally supplies Tuitu with an English word.
"The army give me nothing. I have a wife and three daughters. We live in the bus." He gestures to his camper, which is decorated with anti-poverty slogans. He says the army eventually supplied him with a pension of about $350 a month, but he needed so many operations on his back that he couldn't keep a steady job. His wife was also sick and often in the hospital. In time they divorced, and he feared he would lose custody of the children. "I go to the TV, radio, paper and tell them, why me in the street with three children?"
Tuitu's misfortunes coincided with a startling shift in Israel's economic situation over the past two decades. Although the image lingers, both at home and abroad, of a country with a strong socialist legacy and a dedication to embracing and absorbing destitute Jewish immigrants, the state welfare apparatus has begun to strain and buckle. In June, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked Jewish charities in the U.S. not to focus on images of Israeli poverty when making their appeals, for fear it would hurt tourism and immigration. "One must not present the state as a hunger-stricken state," Sharon said, according to UPI. "There is poverty but there is no hunger."
State facts say otherwise. The split between rich and poor, once one of the smallest among industrialized nations, widened rapidly in the 1980s; a special report by the Knesset committee on social gaps in December 2002 found that the gross income per family in the top 10 percent is more than 12 times higher than in the bottom 10 percent. Among developed countries, that disparity is second only to the one in the United States. The number of poor children in Israel rose by 50 percent over the past 14 years, and the number of poor families went up by almost 30 percent; today, one in six families lives in poverty, including 25 percent of all children. In the first quarter of 2003, unemployment hit a 10-year high of 10.8 percent.
The situation for Israel's poor has worsened even though social welfare spending almost doubled over the past 20 years, to a staggering 54 percent of the budget. Several factors account for this. Thousands of guest workers from Thailand and the Philippines were brought over in the mid '90s to lessen the reliance on Palestinian agricultural, construction, and home-health-care workers. The foreigners, employed by temp agencies like the giant Manpower, work 40 percent cheaper than Israelis. Nearly 80 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work, up from 50 percent in 1980; the "black-hat" communities are marked by high birthrates and a reliance on state subsidies. And, of course, Israel's perpetual state of war, which has intensified since the second intifada in September 2000, has had a variety of detrimental effects on the economy, the disappearance of tourism and the high cost of security and infrastructure in the territories being just two.
Tuitu, unlike most Israelis, has many of these statistics at his fingertips. "The danger to Israel is not from Palestine, not from Hezbollah, not from Iran," he says. "It is from the people that don't have a way to live, don't have a house. And every day many people come to this situation." Beginning in the late '90s, Tuitu won the support of some far-left members of the Knesset for actions like pitching a tent in front of then prime minister Ehud Barak's offices for three months. Barak seemed moveable. Then came his defeat in a landslide by hard-line right-winger Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections. "Sharon is the second Stalin," spits Valentina from her post on the bench.
Tuitu persisted, holding a Passover seder for hungry people in 2000 and 2001 outside Sharon's offices. Then he took a more drastic step, bringing his cause right to the heart of wealthy Tel Aviv. "The situation is very dangerous for Israel, that many people don't have places to live and work. I think, How can I make all the people in Israel see this problem in the eyes? And I think, This place is the national square. If you see this placeVersace, Romani, Gucci, Louis Vuittonhere is the center of the country. Here you can see the difference."
It didn't take long for the city to notice the difference made by a group of Jewish families, Arabs, seniors, and disabled people living in Tel Aviv's main squareespecially since, from the city's perspective, the original protest was supposed to last only a few months, until the national elections. "We believe that everyone in a democracy has a basic right to protest," said Hillel Fertouk, a spokesperson for Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. "We shook hands and agreed that after the election they would leave the area. But when the elections finished, they still lived in the square and we had to evacuate. From protesters, they became settlers." The new settlers celebrated the Jewish holidays late into the night and received groups of supporters in their outdoor home.
Dr. Shmuel Saadia, a Tel Aviv lawyer involved with many human rights and social organizations, has been representing Tuitu pro bono since the beginning last spring of the inevitable court proceedings to dismantle the camp. "He is a leader of people," the attorney says. "He is acting for the people who need help." Saadia has fought suits from both the city and the owner of part of the square, who recently emerged with a plan to develop two luxury apartment buildings on the spot of the camp. There have been injunctions and appeals. A police raid of the camp in April 2003 led to a countersuit. On July 3, Saadia won a last-minute stay against the municipal judge's order on behalf of the private owner to remove the settlement; apparently the judge's house was very close to the square, creating an undeclared conflict of interest. Still, the city's case is pending in the Supreme Court; Tuitu is charged not only with illegally occupying, but also with illegally renaming the square.
As he stubs out another Time cigarette, Tuitu is unbowed. Like the original halutzim, or pioneers, who fought off Arab tribes and made the Israeli desert bloom, he has staked his claim. "Out of 50, I have I think 20 people here that will go to the finish. They don't have a choice. We have chains for the bus, we have gas. We will not go another time in the street.
"I make all this for the people that they don't know how to talk, they don't have a way to live, they can't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Tuitu continues. "I believe that people must go outside of their house to tell the government that we must finish all this. We are giving the government a mirror."