Looting shocks Israelis

By Richard Boudreaux | Chicago Tribune March 22, 2009

HATZOR HAGLILIT, Israel — - First came the employees, shortchanged two months' pay and laid off by the supermarket called God's Blessing. They plundered their shuttered workplace, helping themselves to crates full of groceries.

As word spread through the small town, the store's jilted creditors joined in. They dismantled the light fixtures, ripped out wiring and absconded with the cash registers, even as television cameras rolled.

Within hours the parking lot was jammed with ordinary shoppers. They left car engines running and brought their children to help pick the shelves clean. Finally even the shelves were hauled away, leaving latecomers to scrounge for leftover fruit.

The two-day spree shocked and puzzled Israelis, who assume that the rule of law prevails in their society. Yet this and other recent cases of looting have coincided with news that the economy, flattened last year after half a decade of enviable growth, had slid into recession.

The outbreaks are isolated and few, but labor activists and others warn that many Israelis are becoming desperate.

"What we're seeing are small stories about collapsing businesses and layoffs that threaten their livelihoods," said Dafna Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Histadrut, Israel's trade union federation. "These small stories are the beginning of a big fire."

For months, the spreading hardship has been obscured as Israel's political discourse focused on regional security threats and the fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But aides to Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu say the economy will top his agenda after he takes office this month.

The economy is expected to shrink 1.5 percent this year, according to the Bank of Israel, compared with growth rates of 4 percent or more in the previous five years.

But as the crisis moves from one workplace to another, Israelis are blaming other Israelis: the tycoons who gambled in overseas real estate and lost, bringing down Israel's financial markets; the bankers who tightened credit; the entrepreneurs who faltered under impossible debt burdens and started bouncing checks.

Israelis are conflicted by the looting. While sympathetic with almost any victim of the recession, they're embarrassed by the looters—but not so outraged as to want them punished or disgraced.

"What we saw in these pictures is the breakdown of the barrier of shame," said news anchor Ilan Goren as he narrated footage of the free-for-all at God's Blessing.

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