"Why should people with disabilities have to choose between food and medical assistance?" cried Ben Cohen, an 18 year old with a disabled mother, at a rally held in Tel Aviv last week, protesting against the government's refusal to honor its commitment to raise disability benefits last year. Hundreds attended the rally, carrying banners stating "Promises are meant to be kept".

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Demonstrators with a sign at the disability benefits protest in Tel Aviv, Jan. 30, 2020. Photograph: Nizzan Zvi Cohen

 

 

"They're torturing us, we can't live off these benefits. We can’t work, we have no other income. It's a disgrace" said Elhanan Aharon, a disabled man from Jerusalem who came to Tel Aviv to take part in the rally. After being let down by the government's refusal to honor its commitments, disabled action groups are now appealing to the general public to support their protests. "Society is judged by the way it treats its weak," said one of the banners held up during the protest.

Just last year, following a long, drawn-out campaign, often involving road obstructions and confrontations with the police, the government had agreed to raise disability benefits to NIS 3,700 ($US 1070) a month. But Israel's political standstill, coupled with a general indifference within the government, has caused the raise to be delayed long after its agreed upon schedule. Several action groups organized by disability right activists have vowed a return to protesting until the government honors the previous agreement.

This government is slowly killing the disabled

Austerity hurts almost everyone, but the hardest hit are always the weakest. Disability benefits have been slowly eroded over the past two decades, with successive governments refusing to raise them due to "budgetary constraints" – pushing many disabled people into abject poverty. Today, full disability benefits, awarded to those disabled people with no working capacity, is a mere NIS 3,270 – less than a third of the average wage.

Member of Knesset, Ilan Gilon, at a demonstration supporting disabled people at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv (Photograph: Davar)

With no political lobby and limited ability to protest, an increasing number of disabled people have found themselves below the poverty line, often forced to forego meeting basic needs. Protesters have said that the refusal to raise disability benefits is a reminder that austerity, with its fixation on welfare-slashing and "getting people to work" – has trampled their right to a decent standard of living, forcing those with no working capacity into poverty.

Chairperson of Disabled, Not Half A Person association, Alex Friedman, center, in a wheelchair, at a disability rights protest outside Azrieli shopping mall in Tel Aviv, Oct. 31, 2019 (Photograph: Tal Carmon)

How long will they have to fight?

The current protests were preceded by a four-year-long public campaign, which started in 2016. At the time, disability benefits issued by the government to a person with no working capacity, and therefore with no other source of income, were NIS 2,300 ($660).

Since 2016, several action groups formed by disability rights activists together with trade unions have been staging protests demanding an increase in government spending on benefits. The protests reached a climax last year, with disabled people in wheelchairs blocking major roads across Israel.

Blocking a lane of traffic on Highway No. 2 near Netanya as part of the disability rights struggle, Oct. 2018 (Photograph: Disabled Become Panthers group)

One of the main points demanded by the protesters was linking disability benefits to the minimum wage. This demand was backed by the claim that people with disabilities which rendered them unable to work had no other source of income, but still deserved a decent standard of living. Since the minimum level of income the government had deemed legal was the minimum wage, the activists had demanded that disability benefits be set to match the minimum wage.

The change came when the Histadrut threatened to strike unless the government agreed to raise the benefits. Union officials, acting as intermediaries, eventually managed to arrange a meeting between leading activists and government officials, in which a compromise was reached. The government agreed to spend NIS 4.2 billion, to raise benefits to NIS 3,700 over the course of three years.

The protests have been known to take a heavy toll on the activists, many of them already suffering from severe medical conditions. "Most of our activists are in wheelchairs" said Eyal Cohen, one of the leading figures in the campaign. "These are people who feel the effects of the protests on their own bodies. We are weaker than most people as it is, and most of our activists have seen a deterioration in their medical condition due to these demonstrations. It quite simply shortens our lives, but we have no other option."

Political standstill

The government on the other hand has refused to raise benefits until after the elections, citing political difficulties and an already large deficit. Activists have claimed that the government's refusal is illegal, and a breach of the law passed in the Knesset last year. Since these days, the government might be handling the Deal of the Century, this reasoning was not acceptable for protesters in the rally.

In 2019 the government and activist groups reached a compromise, by which benefits would rise gradually to NIS 3,700 over the course of three years, and would subsequently be linked to changes in the average wage. The government had agreed on a 4.3 billion shekel spending package to back the raise, which was approved unanimously in the Knesset.

Inside the disability rights protest tent outside of the Knesset building (Photograph: Disabled Become Panthers group)

However, the legislation failed to outline the rise in benefit spending after the end of 2019. Benefits were planned to rise in several stages, giving the government time to adjust to the extra spending, but in practice, only two raises were agreed upon. The political standstill has made it difficult to agree on the date and level of the next raise, especially in the face of resistance from the Ministry of Finance, which has been staunchly opposed to the raise.

"We are currently trying to press the government to approve a raise it has already committed to. It's a NIS 185 ($50) raise, and they're not even prepared to do that. It may not be apparent to them, but to us it's absolutely vital. It means a few more days of food, or another dose of medicine. People who have nothing need this," said Cohen.

Another reason why the government appears unable to honor its promises is a set of automatic fiscal rules known as the 'Numerator'. These rules, designed to restrict the government's ability to commit to spending without a clear and designated source of income, prohibit a raise by the current government. Adding to this are the effects of the current political standstill, and the fact that there is no government to approve a budget for 2020. This has been cited by the Ministry of Finance, which has claimed that without an agreed-upon budget that includes an income plan, the government cannot raise spending on disability benefits, even though it is obligated by law to do so

The result is that the Israeli government has missed the deadline for the next raise agreed-upon a year ago, which has caused activists to lose faith in the agreement, and declare a return to large-scale protests.

Eyal Cohen at a disability rights protest at Ben Gurion Airport, Aug, 2017 (Photograph: Naor Lavi, Disabled Become Panthers group spokesperson)

"The government is playing with society’s weakest as if we were toys. This government has broken its promise. The benefit raise was enacted into law, and now the government is refusing to follow through. That is why I am officially announcing a fresh campaign to assure that we get what was promised us," said Eyal Cohen, at the rally last week. "This is just the starting point. I call everyone to join our protest. Politicians, wake up and see how much damage you are doing to society’s most vulnerable. Stop torturing us needlessly. This government is slowly killing the disabled."

People with disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg

Even though disability benefits have been historically low in Israel, the last two decades have seen a deterioration in living conditions for people with disabilities. The watershed moment that led to a dramatic fall in disability welfare occurred in 2003, when benefits were slashed as part of then Minister of Finance Netanyahu's austerity plan.

In a similar vein to neo-liberal policies widely enacted across Western nations at the time, Netanyahu's plan included sweeping cuts to welfare spending. The plan was based on the assumption that many Israelis who relied on the welfare system were "clinging on" instead of getting a job, and the threat of poverty due to a slash in benefits would push them to work and help reduce government spending. The plan also changed the way benefits were updated to compensate for inflation: instead of linking benefits to the average wage, benefits were linked to the CPI consumer index .

The plan proved to be a disaster for poorer Israelis, but one of the hardest hit groups were the disabled. Many disabled people found themselves with lower incomes, even while they failed to find jobs which suited their medical conditions. The shift to a link to the CPI has also contributed to the erosion of benefits over the years: while wages have been rising slowly, inflation in Israel has been stagnant at around zero, occasionally falling to negative figures. This means that the rise in benefits has not caught up with the general rise in wages, and has left many people with disabilities with comparatively lower incomes and without the ability to pay for everyday expenses

A study by Israel's Statistics Bureau has shown that poverty among people with disabilities has been on the rise since 2003. Although Netanyahu's austerity plan increased poverty levels dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century, those levels have been falling slowly in the past decade. For people with disabilities, however, this has not been the case. While general levels of poverty have reduced slightly, poverty among people with disabilities has increased. While in 2003 poverty levels among people with disabilities was 19%, in 2014 the level rose to 23.7%. The study also showed that poverty among people with disabilities had deepened.