A single mother's 120-mile hike to protest Israeli government cuts in social welfare benefits has captivated public and media attention and spawned similar pilgrimages in the country.
The growing tent encampment set up by Mitzpe Ramon resident Vicky Knafo and her comrades on the sidewalk across from the Finance Ministry building in Jerusalem is becoming a site for supporters and well-wishers. Some observers, though, question whether the single mothers will be able to translate their campaign into a political force capable of affecting economic policy.
The protests are in response to budget cuts pushed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The cuts are aimed at liberalizing and jump-starting Israel's economy.
The economy -- hurt by nearly three years of violence with the Palestinians -- has shrunk 1 percent annually the last two years, and unemployment is approaching a record 11 percent.
Knafo, a 43-year-old mother of three, embarked on her weeklong trek from the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem to protest government cuts to income supplements, which she said represent the difference between subsistence and starvation for single mothers.
The gravelly voiced, curly headed Knafo said she was propelled by her personal need. Her undertaking inspired other women -- and some men -- to set off on similar pilgrimages.
Among those who made their way to Jerusalem were Ilana Azulai, an Arad resident accompanied by her 17-year-old wheelchair-bound son, as well as Aliza Ezra, a mother of three, who walked from Shlomi in the Upper Galilee.
Describing the economic hardships the women face, Ezra said her National Insurance Institute allowance last month was cut from less than $800 to under $600. "I don't know what to pay first, food, electricity, water or the telephone," she told the daily newspaper Ha'aretz.
The number of families who will be affected by the cuts is significant. According to the National Insurance Institute, 112,000 single-parent families, with children up to age 21, live in Israel. About 64 percent receive some form of state support.
Ha'aretz reported that 87,000 single-parent mothers with children up to age 17 live in Israel. About 76 percent of them work outside the home.
As the grass-roots movement gathers steam, the Treasury has tried to stress that the aim of the measures is to shift the emphasis on income support away from welfare and toward job incentives.
Netanyahu recently unveiled a plan aimed at helping single mothers return to work. The proposal included providing grants for up to one year for women who work at least one-third of the time. The plan also calls for generating employment for the single mothers through public works projects. Some of the plan's most severe austerity measures will be cuts in income supplements for working mothers earning the minimum wage.
Critics said that the grants are only short-term solutions, while the stipends would continue to be cut, and that the job incentives are also temporary.
Knafo, who is employed, rejected what she said were efforts by the Treasury to paint single mothers as parasites who prefer welfare to work.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave his backing July 20 to Netanyahu's efforts and did not open a Cabinet discussion on the protest. The single mothers did appear to get a sympathetic ear, though, from President Moshe Katsav, who met with a delegation the same day and listened to their plight.
Katsav said he raised the matter with Netanyahu, who repeated his offer to have the ministry's director general meet with the demonstrators -- a proposal the protesters have previously rejected, Israel Radio reported.