Israelis take to streets for 4th week of protests

Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into streets across the country Saturday for a fourth consecutive week, exanding their protest movement against the nation's high cost of living from major central cities to smaller ones in outlying areas.

The mass demonstrations have become a weekly ritual this summer, delivering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government its most serious domestic crisis.

Last week, more that a quarter of a million people turned out — primarily in Tel Aviv — for one of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history.

In contrast, this week's gatherings were more modest and aimed at focusing attention on the country's poorer areas. Whereas last week's massive turnout was mainly in Tel Aviv, this week saw the protests spread from Nahariya in the north, on the Lebanon border, to the port city of Eilat at Israel's southernmost tip.

Overall, police said more than 50,000 people attended protests in about a dozen locations. Israeli media put the figure at around 70,000 nationwide.

In the largest protest, at least 25,000 people took to the streets of Haifa in northern Israel, according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. Another major demonstration took place in Beersheba in southern Israel, where musicians performed and demonstrators beat drums, waved flags and held banners such as "the people demand social justice."

For the first time, there were also protests in a number of Arab towns.

In less than a month, the movement has ballooned from a few tents in Tel Aviv to a nationwide phenomenon.

The protests initially targeted soaring housing prices, but quickly evolved into a sweeping expression of rage against a wide array of economic issues, including the cost of food, gasoline and education.

The grass roots movement has tapped into a wider sense of frustration over an eroding middle class and growing gaps between rich and poor.

In response, Netanyahu has appointed a special committee to address the protesters' demands.

The demonstrators have rejected all the reforms offered thus far by the government and have called for a million-person march in 50 cities across the country on Sept. 3.

Israel emerged from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. The economy is enjoying rapid growth, and unemployment is at its lowest in decades.

But the country's economic strength has come at a cost. The ranks of the working poor have grown dramatically as wealth has increasingly become concentrated among a small group of tycoons.

The middle class has specifically been hit hard, with high taxes and salaries not having kept pace with the price rises.