Poor Israelis Protest Influx of Soviet Jews

ON a hot, sun-baked summer day this week, Nissim and Dorit Chabtai, a homeless couple, sat in their tent pitched near Israel's parliament building and talked bitterly of the influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants to their country. ``We're being discriminated against,'' says Nissim, an unemployed truck driver. ``The new immigrants receive government subsidies to rent, while we who were born here, served in the Army and raised a family, get nothing. We want the same thing they're getting; equal rights.''

``My parents lived in a transit camp when they moved here from Morocco,'' says Dorit, a mother of three. ``Now we and our children are back in the same conditions.''

The Chabtais are part of a growing number of low-income families who have found themselves unable to afford housing as the waves of Soviet Jewish immigration come to Israel. The soaring demand for apartments for the new immigrants has pushed rental prices beyond the means of hundreds of Israeli families.

Six months ago the Chabtais were forced to move in with relatives, and had been living in a three-and-a-half room apartment that housed 13 people.

Now the Chabtais have joined a tent camp, set up by over 60 homeless families in a park near the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Dubbed ``The Knesset transit camp,'' the encampment is one of about 20 set up in recent weeks in towns and cities throughout Israel by a grass-roots protest movement that has spread rapidly.

The people moving to the tent camps are couples, single mothers and their children, mostly from low-income neighborhoods. Some have faced eviction by landlords demanding higher rent, others were forced to live with relatives or take up residence in bomb shelters.

Their growing predicament, which drew little public attention in Israel until now, has erupted with full force with the arrival of the masses of Soviet Jews. Television news reports and the local press are filled with stories of a previously unknown class of homeless Israelis.

Some of their protests have turned violent, with angry demonstrators blocking roads with burning tires and rocks. Two homeless people threatened to burn themselves to death, but were restrained by police.

There are ethnic undertones to the unrest, since many of the homeless are Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who traditionally have been resentful of what they see as preferential treatment given to European and Western immigrants.

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, already grappling with the acute shortage of apartments for arriving Soviet Jews, has proposed a series of emergency steps to overcome the housing crisis: importing prefabricated homes and trailers, and putting up the immigrants in hotels, youth hostels, and Army barracks.

Mr. Sharon has also proposed giving the homeless housing terms similar to those given new immigrants, providing them with equivalent mortgages, and government aid.

In the long term, the Housing Ministry proposes to construct 100,000 housing units over the next two years to meet the needs of 12,000 young couples and a quarter of a million new immigrants. Sharon says 400,000 housing units would have to be built over the next five years to overcome Israel's acute shortage.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem tent camp for the homeless is looking more like a permanent settlement. The municipality has supplied toilets and running water, light bulbs have been strung up, and volunteers have provided tents and shelters.

The families say they are digging in for a long stay, and will leave only if the government finds them affordable housing.

Esther Levy, a divorced mother, has been living for the last six months in a bomb-shelter with her six-year-old daughter, after being evicted from her apartment by her landlord.

``He raised the rent and told me, `Take it or leave it,''' says Ms. Levy. ``Many landlords are saying now that they can get higher rents from Soviet immigrants who have government subsidies, but there's no way I'm going back to that bomb shelter. I want an apartment.''

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