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Self-Immolations Speak of Israel’s Economic Pains

In the past weeks, the streets of Tel Aviv have been witness to desperate people setting themselves on fire in protest against the growing social and economic inequalities and the rising cost of living in Israel. Almost one year after 400,000 Israelis filled Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest at the increasing economic difficulties, a wave of civil unrest and upsurges is again encompassing the country. The latest victim of the protests was 57-year-old Moshe Silman, a disabled war veteran who sustained severe injuries after setting himself ablaze at a bus stop near Tel Aviv on July 14.

The death of Silman ignited widespread anger and frustration among the Israelis who have poured into the streets of Tel Aviv en masse since early July to call on the government to meet their socioeconomic demands in the light of the unprecedented recession and economic crisis in Europe. The New York Times wrote that many people have compared Silman to the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi whose suicide on January 4, 2011 became the preface to the Tunisian revolution and the subsequent Arab Spring which have transformed the Middle East.

However, the chained self-immolations in the past weeks in Israel are not exceptional. Although few may remember the tragic event, back in July 2004, when another Israeli, Mordehai Cohen, set himself on fire in protest at the rejection of a work license. Moshe Silman was formerly a businessman, working in a messenger service.

According to media reports, his business plummeted following the Second Intifada and his being unable to pay back the debt of the National Insurance Institute caused his homelessness. Irritated and hopeless, he set himself on fire, and a few days after the doctors said that 92 percent of his body had burnt, he passed away. Before committing suicide, Silman wrote a letter, part of which reads, “I have no money for medicine or rent. I can’t make the money after I have paid my millions in taxes I did the army, and until age 46 I did reserve duty. I refuse to be homeless; this is why I am protesting.”

The other case of self-immolation in Israel took place when the 40-year-old Akiva Mafa’i who was identified as an Israel Defense Force (IDF) veteran, fired himself in an excruciating manner. The Defense Ministry denied that his self-immolation had any connection with his status as a military veteran, but his brother thinks differently. He says that IDF is apathetical toward war veterans and acts indifferent, paying no attention to the fact that they have sacrificed themselves to “contribute to the (Israeli) state.”

Israel’s economic crisis and popular protests at the deteriorating social, political and economic situation in the country are nothing new. Financial hardships and the increasing gap between the rich and poor in Israel have ignited widespread protests since last year. It can be said that Israel’s reliance on the United States and EU’s ailing economy has dragged it into the current dilemma. The (European Union) EU considers Israel a “privileged partner.” The European Union was Israel’s first trade partner and in 2011, bilateral trade between the two sides amounted to approximately €29.4 billion. But these economic indicators don’t carry promising news for Israel. As of December 31, 2010, Israel’s external debt revolved around $89 billion, which roughly constituted 43 percent of Israel’s total GDP.

According to New Israel Fund, 20 percent of the Israeli citizens and one in three children live below the poverty line. On July 24, the Israeli media published a report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded an increase in taxes and a considerable cut in the budget so as to prevent Israel’s economy from sliding into a more debilitating crisis.

Israel is sinking in poverty and foreign debt while it leaders spend lavishly on military equipment and buying state-of-the-art weaponry from different countries. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPR), Israel ranks 18th in the world in terms of military expenditure. This while it receives an annual $3.09 billion from the United States in military assistance. And just recently, it was reported that U.S. President Barack Obama has signed into law a bill that allows the government to give Israel another $70 million in military assistance.

All in all, Israel’s economy isn’t experiencing delightful days. The mass protests in Tel Aviv and other cities relate the bitter story of Israel’s failed economy. Perhaps it might be better for Israel’s leaders to deal with their people’s problems and think of solutions to get out of the current predicament rather than focusing on external threats, either perceived or real.