Benefits increase marks a partial victory for disabled people in Israel

“Someone with a complex disability like myself needs several different mobility machines and my insurance does not cover the purchase of the ones I use. There is also the cost of 1,600 shekels worth of medication per month and other treatments such as massages,” explains Avital, who suffers from Cauda equina syndrome, a serious neurological condition that causes, notably, back pain and a loss of feeling in the legs. “And all of that is before all the usual bills and shopping.”

For people like Avital, 29 September 2017 was a milestone. The Israeli government agreed to sit down at the negotiating table and to unblock the funds to repair this injustice.

The state has promised a total of 4.2 billion shekels (a little over one billion euros) over four years. The revised benefit will be introduced gradually.

In 2021, the most severely disabled should see their monthly allowance rise to 4,500 shekels (about €1,088). Israelis who have a recognised level of disability that deems them unfit to work will see their allowance rise by 1,250 shekels to reach a total of between 3,800 and 4,050 shekels. Those with a disability of between 60 and 70 per cent will receive between 2,100 and 2,400 shekels.

At the same time, disabled people who are able to work will be allowed to combine their benefit with a salary of up to 4,300 shekels, compared to today’s limit of 2,800.

“It’s an historic agreement that will lead to a spectacular improvement in the situation of the disabled in Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou.

“We have made social history in Israel. We have considerably improved the economic situation of the disabled population,” said Avi Nissenkorm, leader of Israel’s foremost workers’ union Histadrut.

The chair of the Disabled Struggle Campaign Naomi Moravia believes this is “the best result possible, given the economic circumstances”.

The reform comes after decades of a policy of public spending cuts in Israel. The Hebrew state took a neoliberal turn in the 1980s and has been making budget cuts since the beginning of 2000, following the recession caused by the second Intifada.

“Spending on social protection was brought down by 10 per cent between 2002 and 2004, while the conditions for paying several benefits were considerably toughened,” writes the economist Jacques Bendelac, in Confluences Méditerranée, Israël : l’enfermement (Mediterranean Convergence, Israel: Confinement).

In Israel “disability is a category which has disparities within it,” adds Michael Shalev, a sociologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There is a hierarchy of rights and advantages: military disabilities come top, workplace disabilities come second, and general disability is at the bottom of the scale.” This third group represents about 243,000 people.

Spectacular protests

The Israeli government has finally decided to address this inequality because first of all it has been promising to do so for years.

“Members of the (ruling) coalition had had enough of being ashamed,” at holding back this measure believes Gilon.

But it was above all the active mobilisation of disabled Israelis that pushed Bejamin Netanyahu’s government into a corner. Disablity rights associations have organised spectacular road blocks for the last two years, increasing in intensity in the months leading up to the agreement, and including a demonstration on the intersection of a major motorway leading into Tel Aviv the day after Jewish New Year on 24 September 2017.

The pictures of these men and women fighting for their dignity were published and broadcast. Some of the protestors lay down on the tarmac to stop cars from moving. Others had to be removed by force by the Israeli police.

In June 2017 during a demonstration in Jerusalem, two disabled people even tried to set fire to themselves, stirring up the public’s emotions. Faced with such negative, image-damaging publicity, the Israeli government could no longer remain indifferent to the problem.

Fifteen Israeli disabled people’s associations have not given up the fight however. They consider the agreement promised by the Israeli state “insufficient”.

They are demanding that the monthly benefit received by those with disabilities should be raised to the level of the average salary in Israel, which is 5,300 shekels (about €1,280).

“To get the maximum allowance in 2021 you have to be recognised as being more than 100 per cent disabled, and by then living costs will have gone up,” explains Naor Lavie, spokesperson for the association Disabled Panthers that is leading the protest movement.

“The government hasn’t specified how it intends to finance the increase after 2019,” he adds.

To meet its 2018 targets, the government has asked the Finance Ministry to release an envelope of 1.3 billion shekels (about €314 million). But a quarter of this budget has yet to be found.

But allies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Education Minister Naftali Bennet (head of the nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi), the Minister of the Interior Arye Dery (head of the religious party Shas), and the Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (joint head of the United Torah alliance), have already announced that they refuse to take part in financing the measure.

So on 31 October, the Disabled Panthers decided it was time to get tough. They succeeded in blocking the route to the highly protected Tel Aviv airport for several minutes before being evacuated by the security forces.

This unprecedented mobilisation shows the limits of the Israeli “start-up nation”. The Hebrew state still has the highest level of poverty amongst OECD members, and the greatest inequalities.

“We do not accept the idea that the disabled have to live in misery and poverty,” says Lavi.

“We are sending a signal to the government and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu: if they don’t accept immediate negotiations with us, we will continue to block strategic locations such as airports,” he warns, convinced that targeting state finances is the best strategy.

This story has been translated from French.