JERUSALEM — Vicki Knafo is an unlikely new media star in Israel. Short, stocky and sun-roughened, with her hair dragged back beneath a baseball cap, the 43-year-old single mother of three walked 120 miles this month from her dusty hometown in the Negev desert to protest the slashing of her monthly social welfare stipend under a government austerity plan.
Now she presides over a fast-growing tent city full of angry single mothers that has sprung up opposite Israel's ivy-covered Finance Ministry -- and she has become the folk heroine of what has turned into the country's largest and most eye-catching social protest movement in recent memory.
The object of the outcry is a blueprint drawn up this year by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that is meant to help repair the economic ravages of almost three years of violent confrontation with the Palestinians.
It calls for nearly $3 billion in budget reductions, and the cuts in single mothers' stipends represent only the first round in what is envisioned as a far-reaching shake-up of Israel's traditional social welfare structure.
But not if Knafo and the other mothers can help it. For the past five days, they have been arriving at the tent encampment by foot and by busload, demanding that the cuts affecting them be rescinded and vowing to stay as long as necessary.
The tent camp may have a raucous, carnival atmosphere, with potluck-style meals spread out on wobbly tables and skinny, knee-skinned kids chasing one another around corners, but the women say they are beside themselves with worry.
"How are we supposed to live?" demanded Etty Ikutriel, a 50-year-old mother of eight. She said her monthly income has fallen by one-third in the past month to about 2,000 shekels, or less than $500 -- not enough to cover basic costs in a country where the prices of rent, food and many staples are roughly equivalent to those in the United States and Europe.
Ikutriel has a job as a janitor and gardener, but the new rules in effect penalize her for working, taking away more of her government child assistance stipend than her minimum-wage salary can begin to make up for. It makes her furious.
"They say we're lazy -- I want to work, but they are making it impossible," said Ikutriel, seated on a plastic chair outside a tent fashioned from clotheslines and bedsheets, where she has been sleeping since she arrived this week.
There were signs that the government might back down on some of the plan's toughest provisions, but in the meantime, the controversy is laying bare the class-based and ethnic fault lines in Israeli society.
Many of the protesters are from hardscrabble Negev towns that were used by Israeli governments in the 1950s as a dumping ground for Jewish immigrants from other Middle Eastern countries, and they remain among the country's poorest communities.
For decades afterward, Jews of the Sephardic strain suffered what they charged was unrelenting discrimination at the hands of the better-off, better-educated, European-descended Jews, or Ashkenazim. While much has been done in recent years to repair the rift, these Negev-based protesters say they are much less likely than Ashkenazi single mothers to have family money and other resources to fall back on.
Single mothers, too, are an especially trampled-on underclass in Israel, where women routinely suffer a sharp drop in economic status if they divorce. Courts are often lax in imposing and enforcing child support payments, and in what remains a highly traditional society, a woman without a husband often finds herself devalued and demeaned, the women's supporters say.
"It's hard, truly, to describe how difficult their lives are," said Anat Maor, a former lawmaker from the liberal Meretz Party who has visited the tent camp every day since Knafo arrived last Friday. "They face great hardship at every turn, with no one to help them."
At the camp and the government complex surrounding it, passions were running high. On Wednesday, a delegation from the group was ejected from the parliament chamber after they heckled Netanyahu. But lawmakers also engaged in a shouting match of their own over the protesters' demands.
"These women live in isolation, poverty, destitution!" lawmaker David Tal of the religious party Shas yelled at Cabinet member Meir Sheetrit. "They fear they will not even be able to put a bowl of soup on their children's table."
Religious parties like Shas are mobilizing to oppose cuts scheduled to take effect this year. Their constituency of ultrareligious Jews is expected to be hit hard by a big drop in state per-child allowances, which until now have encouraged penniless religious scholars to have very large families.
Even the lawmaker who invited the delegation into the chamber, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, came in for a tongue-lashing from protesters.
"You come from a rich family -- you voted in favor of these cuts!" one shouted at the parliamentarian, Inbal Gavrieli.