The protesters, who aim to «inspire a national squatting movement», unveiled Jerusalem’s first «People’s House» on Saturday night, occupying an abandoned state-owned building close to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu‘s official residence, where several thousand demonstrators called for social justice and better living standards.
The four storey building in the city centre has been empty for 15 years, say demonstrators. It is owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which was established by Zionists more than a century ago to buy up land in Palestine. Plans to turn it into a hotel more than a decade ago never came to fruition.
A coalition of activists broke in through a back window on Friday, cleared away rubble and set about transforming the interior in anticipation of Saturday night’s launch.
About 200 Israelis came to celebrate the building’s occupation on Saturday night, according to the organisers.
The flicker of hundreds of candles lit up poems inspired by the social justice protests which were daubed in white paint on the walls.
Esther Witt, one of the activists behind the initiative, said the political statement was designed to put pressure on the government to deal with state-owned buildings that stand empty and encourage the thousands of foreign owners of «ghost apartments» in Israel to rent them out.
«We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years,» said Witt, a special needs teaching assistant and mother of two young children.
«We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.»
The takeover of the building followed two similar «guerrilla occupations» in Tel Aviv.
Last Monday, dozens of housing protesters occupied a building owned by the Tel Aviv Municipality before being evicted by police the next morning.
And on Friday afternoon, protesters broke into and briefly occupied another mainly empty municipal building in the city, hanging protest signs on its exterior and leaving before police arrived.
Discontent with spiralling rents, high house prices, the exorbitant costs of education and raising children, as well as a range of other social issues, has seen a national social justice movement blossom since the first «tent city» protest in Tel Aviv on 14 July.
Mass rallies have been held in cities and towns across Israel since then, with an estimated 300,000 people taking to the streets on 6 August in the largest demonstrations over social issues seen in the country.
Unimpressed by the government’s establishment of a committee of experts to consider the demands, activists are calling for a «million-man» march in 50 cities next Saturday.
However, demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and a handful of other towns and cities on Saturday night saw a markedly lower turnout than in previous protests, with about 20,000 Israelis taking part, according to local media reports.
Protests planned for last weekend were cancelled after terrorist attacks hit the south of the country, and an anticipated Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN threatens to eclipse the sizable media coverage and publicity that the demonstrators have garnered so far.