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Israeli Organization of Disabled Persons Holds 77 Day "sit-In" About Benefits

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Disability World, A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views * Issue no. 13 April-May 2002.

When Arie Zudkevitch and his fellow members of the Israeli Organization of the Disabled stormed the gates of the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem and began their outdoor vigil they said the wouldn't leave until their demands were met. That was last December 17. They never dreamed they wouldn't leave until 77 days later, on March 3.

The two-year-old Israeli Organization of the Disabled was driven to take the drastic action because, as chairman Zudkevitch said, those who rely on a monthly government disability allowance of 1741 new shekels for support were falling into desperate poverty. "The amount of money that we get cannot fulfill even the basic needs of people without special needs."

The primary demand was that the allowance be immediately raised to Israel's minimum wage of 3260 new shekels a month.

In the end, the demonstrators accepted an offer of increases of from 200-1050 new shekels a month, with those with the most expensive needs getting the most. Zudkevitch says about 130,000 of the 144,000 civilian Israelis with disabilities rely on the allowance as their sole means of support, but Ministry officials placed that figure at about 14,000.

Difficult choices

The decision to sit in at the Ministry did not come easy, Zudkevitch said, " because of the security difficulty in Israel and the economic crisis that goes along with it.

We did not have any other choices because there were many disabled people who are in poverty. The situation of these people is a direct result of the general economic situation. It is a well-known rule that the poor become more poor, while some rich people become richer in a crisis like that. When rich people suffer, they have bank accounts or insurance that provide them all their needs and none of them will reach a situation in which he has to worry about his survival. That is why we thought that Israel should change its priorities and to give more to the one who needs it."

Zudkevitch is one of those who lives off the pension. He's 53 and describes himself as "the father of two healthy sons." He and his wife, Aviva, no longer work full time because the effects of post-polio syndrome are rapidly catching up with them. "It gets more difficult every day," he says.

Ups and downs of negotiations

Zudkevitch said negotiations with the government broke down three months prior to the beginning of the action. On the first day of the sit in, he said, before guards could react, dozens of demonstrators were inside the Ministry gate. Over time people came and went, Zudkevitch said, with the largest crowd being about 500 and about 70 sticking it out the whole time.

Keeping spirits high and tempers cool was a challenge. On day four, they sat outside in a cold rain. "There were some people who thought we should give up," Zudkevitch said. " There were fights and disagreements between the demonstrators. That's why I and a small group of the leadership were in the place all the time--talking to people, listening to their problems and acting towards them as equal friends, because that's what we felt. We felt we were given trust to lead them, but we are mostly part of a big group."

Community support, hopes and disappointments

Singers and comedians came around to entertain. Local restaurants donated food and hotels donated rooms so demonstrators could leave for a while to rest or shower. Members of a labor union brought in mattresses and blankets.

"The reason that all of us stood together was the belief in justice," Zudkevitch said. But he admits that some people stayed because the food and the physical assistance they got from the guards was better than they got at home.

There were days of hope and disappointment along the way. On the third day, Israeli President Moshe Katsav dropped by and asked that the action be suspended for a few days to give him time to work on a solution. Demonstrator Momo Nekaveh replied, "We'll leave dead first," the Jerusalem Post reported.

On day 28, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said he was "personally pained" by the situation, appointed a seven-member committee to work toward a solution, headed by Finance Minister Silvan Shalom. But Shalom had angered the demonstrators when the action began by rejecting their demands for a meeting and they refused to recognize the committee. They also turned down an offer around that same time from Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri that would have raised the allowances of 38,000 of the most severely disabled recipients between 186 and 711 shekels a month.

10,000 allies in Tel Aviv

On January 23, 10,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv in support of the disabled protesters. Two days later, demonstrator Yoav Krime told the Jerusalem Post the protest would go on for "as long as needed." He said "The children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, so what is 40 days?"

Zudkevitch said Sharon did not speak to them personally until day 44, when they were in the third day of a hunger strike. They agreed to call off the hunger strike in exchange for Sharon's promise that he would intervene when he returned from meeting with President Bush. The next time they heard from Sharon himself, Zudkevitch said, was the day they left.

"Maybe if the Israeli government was a bit more sensitive the strike wouldn't be so difficult or better yet wouldn't be at all," Zudkevitch said.

Secondary demands

They left with no immediate action being taken on their other secondary demands: 1) increasing health care benefits of civilian disabled to equal the benefits of those who served in the military 2) repealing the portion of the law that reduces the allowances of civilian disabled people when they become eligible for other types of support at retirement age.

They received instead a promise that the national government will form a committee to propose solutions to the problems of Israelis with disabilities.

"The importance of that committee is that for the first time the disabled people will be part of this committee and we will take responsibility on our life future." Zudkevitch said. He will be a member

Introducing Israeli society to human rights of disabled persons "We didn't get all the things we wanted and we had to make compromises, because of the security situation that Israel has to deal with," Zudkevitch said.

" But we got an improvement in the amount of money that the disabled people get. I am very proud in what we accomplished in this demonstration. The most important achievement we have now is the changes of the Israeli society. People understand better the needs of the disabled people and the language of human rights."

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