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Netanyahu Pledges Reform Following Major Demonstration

Israelis shout slogans as they wave fake bank notes during a rally in Tel Aviv against rising rent and property prices in Israel, July 23, 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to address a growing housing crisis in his country after a demonstration by thousands of Israelis in late Saturday.

In just one week the protest has grown from a few tents in Tel Aviv to a nationwide movement.

Netanyahu promised comprehensive reforms after an estimated 15,000 people demonstrated late Saturday against the rising cost of rent and housing prices.

He said Israel is witnessing a housing crisis that has received public expression. This crisis is real, he acknowledged, adding that "we not only identify with it, we recognized it years ago."

Saturday's rally was peaceful although police said several dozen demonstrators were arrested for blocking streets. The protesters waved banners demanding social justice. Some called for the government's resignation.

Rents have nearly doubled in the past few years and students like Moshe Batito said they can no longer afford to live near their places of study and work.

"The students need to pay a lot of money and we cannot. We cannot. We have scholarships. We have everything and still we suffer," said Batito.

The protest began one week ago as mostly young people erected camps of tent cities across the country. It has since drawn support from a cross-section of society, including the middle class and the elderly.

Organizers have tried to keep the protest focused on the high cost of housing, but other groups have joined in promoting their own special interests.

Israel's economy has been growing by more than four percent annually in recent years, but many say the prosperity is being enjoyed primarily by a wealthy minority.

There have been protests against rising prices for fuel and for cottage cheese, a popular dairy by-product. Doctors and medical students are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions.

Humanitarian groups have noted that living conditions are much worse among some Palestinians and recent immigrants.

The movement's growth through the social media has reminded some of the beginnings of recent uprisings in nearby Arab countries.

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