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Scud threat pales to daily life { February 11 2003 }

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Tuesday, February 11, 2003 Adar1 9, 5763
Background / For some, Scud threat pales before daily life

By Bradley Burston, Ha'aretz Correspondent

As many in Israel prepare to revamp their homes or run to faraway hotels at the threat of non-conventional Iraqi weapons, some residents of a rain-soaked homeless encampment say a direct hit by a Scud missile would, if nothing else, put them out of their misery.

To protest their conditions in the teeth of a rainy, chill winter, homeless persons have pitched rude tents and nylon lean-tos to seize the heart of one of Tel Aviv's toniest areas, Kikar Hamedina (Plaza of the State), ringed by high-gloss shops where the well-heeled browse for the likes of Donna Karan evening dresses and accessories by Prada and Gucci.

The drama, no less than the stage, has pointed to one of the more painful stressors of Israel's failing economy - the soaring disparity in living standards and resources between a discreet upper economic stratum and an increasingly evident underclass.

The long-range outlook of the Tel Aviv protesters, and that of working-class and sinking middle-class Israelis as a whole, remains clouded at best. For the wealthiest Israelis, heirs to a formerly socialist-based system, the rich continue to get richer even as the economy itself gets poor.

A signal current example is Bank Hapoalim, literally "The Bank of the Workers," once wholly owned by the Labor movement complex that encompassed the Histadrut Labor Federation, the kibbutz movement, and a plethora of powerful, since-privatized cooperatives.

Bank Hapoalim is now controlled by business heiress Shari Arison, who swayed few in Israel last week when she adopted a poor little rich girl pose in lamenting her bank's decision to summarily fire 900 workers, even as the bank was showing substantial profits in a severely compromised economy.

Addressing Bank Hapoalim's current plans to acquire smaller, less liquid banks, Haaretz commentator Hannah Kim remarks, "When considering the state of the Israeli economy, one must look not only at the poverty and the closing of 60,000 small businesses in the last year. One must ask - and show - who are those people and companies that are moving their assets overseas, what does the new distribution of wealth in Israel looks like, and why don't those same people who cluck their tongues and talk about cutbacks in the budget - for the sake of the economy, of course - talk about the flight of capital and the economy's strides toward over-centralization.

"Why isn't there anyone to talk about how, under the cover of the economic crisis, a new distribution of wealth, full of inequality, is taking place in the economy?"

Meanwhile, in a pointed play on the Hebrew expression for a loaf of bread, the protesters have renamed the site Kikar HaLechem ("Bread Square") and have vowed to stay, no matter what.

The Tel Aviv struggle has come at a time when many Israelis can concentrate on little else than the possibility that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will retaliate for an American-led onslaught by training Scud ballistic missiles on the Jewish state, as he did during the 1991 Gulf war. A total of 39 Iraqi Scuds slammed into Israel at the time, exacting relatively few casualties, but causing widespread damage and wholesale disruption of daily life.

Ma'ariv newspaper Tuesday carried a special advisory section on preparing for war, darkly headlined with a new code name for a national emergency ["Eastern Whistle," taking the place of the former, arguably more panic-provoking Red Hail], and featuring recommendations on where to flee in the event of biological, chemical, nuclear or simply conventional attack by Iraq.

Other publications told Israelis how to modify their homes to guard against poison gases, ot other Iraqi threats.

Referring to the pattern of damage done by Scuds in 1991, protest leader protest leader Yisrael Tuito said Tuesday that "We are in an area that is prone to attack from Saddam's missiles, because he's looking to strike this area.

"But there are people here who would prefer than a missile simply drop on them, rather than be evicted from here, because they have no place else to go."

"The encampment has stood for six months, a perpetual reminder of the socio-economic crisis in the heart of one of the few bubbles of prosperity still remaining in Tel Aviv," Army Radio said Tuesday.

The protesters arrived at the site last August 18, hanging on and even increasing their numbers through the jungle humidity of a Tel Aviv summer and the freezing seaside thunderstorms of the winter nights that followed.

The demonstators included single-parent families, unemployed persons and the handicapped, representatives of exactly those groups hardest hit by severe State Budget cuts approved in December.

Underscoring the fears of the protesters, who believe that their suffering is likely not only to deepen but also to spread to more and more Israelis, the treasury announced this week that the cuts passed less than two months ago were not nearly enough. According to the officials, the real deficit this year could be up to twice the NIS 7-9 billion shortfall projected when the budget was drawn up and okayed.

Despite a liberal electoral base, the Tel Aviv Municipality has been under crushing behind-the-scenes pressure by land-owners and business figures to clear the Kikar HaLechem protesters as trespassers - and to head off possible legal claims for squatters' rights to the elegant site.

"At five in the morning, a very large force of police burst in here, insisting on rousting everyone out of their rooms, with no exceptions," Tuito said Tuesday, in the latest of a series of thus-far fruitless attempts by municipal officials to evict the demonstrators.

"Some of the people here, who simply gathered here from the streets, now have a warm home here, warm food, and love. They see no alternative to this, other than to go back to sleeping on benches.

"In the half-year we've been here, the State of Israel has done not one thing aside from continuing to attack the weaker classes with severe austerity measures. Today, they're coming here, in order to throw these same people into the street. How can it be that the Tel Aviv municipality's serving as one more tool of major landowners? To get in their good graces, apparently, since there's only eight months left 'til elections and [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai wants to be on their good side."

Past efforts have included cutting off their electricity, and clearing away the tents - measures which the Kikar HaLechem residents fought by bringing in generators and a trailer.

Inadvertently aiding the demonstrators' cause has been an unusually unsuccessful series of harsh declarations by municipal officials, the latest of which was issued Monday. "It was one thing when they were protesting social issues before the elections, but now they have become public nuisances," said senior city official Shalom Elkayam, after he ordered eviction orders plastered on the tents and old vehicles where the protesters have been camping. "The orders are for moveable goods [property] and I'll decide when they should be evacuated."

The protesters immediately launched a hunger strike in protest. Later Tuesday, their spirits were buoyed when the High Court issued an injunction barring the city from going through with the planned eviction. But any sense of victory is likely to be short-lived.

"When the ruckus about the American war in Iraq dies down and the planned cutbacks in education and health go into effect, it will turn out that the Israeli economy is more centralized than ever and that a large number of people who own companies are paying less taxes," writes Kim in Tuesday's paper.

"These are two stories about two apparently different economies, both in one country deep in recession, in which harm to one strengthens the other."

Copyright 2003 Haaretz. All rights reserved

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Scud threat pales to daily life { February 11 2003 }

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