JERUSALEM (AP) — Angry over the ever increasing cost of living, more than a quarter of a million Israelis poured into the streets of major cities Saturday night in a huge show of strength by the protest movement mounting the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The numbers show the movement is gaining momentum after more than three weeks.
Thousands of mostly middle class Israelis marched through the streets in central Tel Aviv waving flags, beating drums and chanting: "Social justice for the people" and "revolution."
Some held signs reading "People before profits," ''Rent is not a luxury," ''Israel is too dear" and "Working class heroes." In Jerusalem, protesters gathered outside Netanyahu's residence.
Demonstrations began last month with a few tents set up in an expensive part of Tel Aviv to protest real estate prices. The tent encampments quickly sprouted in other city centers and the movement further expanded as protesters later joined in over a wide range of economic issues.
Young parents are protesting high child rearing bills, doctors are striking due to strenuous work conditions, teachers are marching over restrictive work contracts and others are in the streets over low salaries, ever increasing gas prices and food costs.
The popular demonstrations have snowballed into the biggest internal challenge yet for Netanyahu and his government. Polls released last week show his approval ratings have dropped while support for the protesters is high. Netanyahu has announced a series of bureaucratic reforms including freeing up land for construction and offering tax breaks.
But the reforms have only increased anger in the streets with protesters complaining the measures would have no real affect on them.
"The prime minister hasn't told us anything," said Stav Shafir, one of the protest leaders. "We are going to keep protesting, we want solutions, we want real willingness by the government to work with the people and answer our demands, until then we will be here."
Roni Sofer, an aide to Netanyahu, said the prime minister "understands the severity of the problems and believes there are serious solutions, but actions need to be taken responsibly."
Sofer said Netanyahu is appointing a team of ministers on Sunday "to provide a working plan by September."
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said about 250,000 were participating two hours into the protest. Israeli media showed streets packed with seas of people in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A similar protest last weekend drew an estimated crowd of 150,000 nationwide. Smaller demonstrations were held in the southern city of Ashkelon and other parts of the country.
Ehud Rotem, a 26-year-old student and bartender, was among the protesters in Jerusalem.
"It's hard to live in this country, we go to the army, work and pay high taxes and still don't earn enough to finish the month financially," he said.
Protester Betty Eppel, a grandmother, said: "It's true that we don't have much unemployment but the wages are so low that we work really hard and can't finish the end of the month."
Protester Moshe Levy said he and his wife Naama work hard and still can't make ends meet. He said their joint monthly income is almost $9,000 and they are still in debt at the end of the month.
The country has one of the highest poverty rates and income gaps in the developed world, and prices for homes, food and fuel have risen in recent months.
The average Israeli salary is about $2,500 per month while teachers and social workers typically earn less than $2,000 a month. Rent on a modest three bedroom apartment in central Jerusalem can cost upward of $1,500 per month and more in Tel Aviv.
A standard, 1,000-square-foot (100-square-meter) apartment can easily top $600,000 in modest middle class neighborhoods in metropolitan centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and $200,000 to $300,000 in second-tier areas.
Critics have pointed out that the young protest leaders appear to be unfocused and unorganized but this past week they joined ranks and spelled out their demands. The list includes affordable housing, reduction of high Value Added Tax rates, free day care for children, smaller classrooms, raising salaries for health care workers and other benefits.
"It's a real substantial protest, we definitely got the message and we have internalized it," Transport minister Yisrael Katz told Israeli media. Katz suggested lowering some taxes and reallocating funds to subsidize the middle class.
AP correspondent Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.