Rebuffing criticism that the government was not providing three major Israeli cities with emergency aid following several weeks of rocket fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he would soon bring forward a new relief package.
The announcement came at the start of a cabinet meeting near Ashkelon, as the government voted on a special disbursement of NIS 1.5 billion to help areas adjacent to Gaza recover from 50 days of war over the summer.
“Within a month we will bring forward a similar package to develop the towns and cities of the south,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet session. “The appropriate Zionist answer to our enemies is not just to overcome them in any battle, but also to develop our towns.”
Netanyahu had earlier come under fire from municipal leaders in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba and smaller towns over being left out of the aid package, which will go only to communities within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip.
The three cities and surrounding areas were pummeled by hundreds of rockets during the military campaign, damaging homes and business and bringing life to a standstill.
Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni said Sunday morning that there was “great anger” in his city over the news that Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba were to be left out of the government compensation package for southern communities hit hard by the 50-day Israel-Hamas war.
Shimoni was joined over the weekend in protesting the aid package by a chorus of leaders from southern areas, including the mayor of nearby Ashdod and heads of various regional councils targeted during the conflict.
Speaking to Channel 10, Shimoni said that Ashkelon needs immediate aid to help recover from the economic effects of the conflict, and said that there many small businesses in the city which have only “two weeks or a month” before they would have to shut their doors.
The cabinet meeting, held in the Hof Ashkelon community center in Bat Hadar near Gaza, was set to approve an aid package of some NIS 1.5 billion (some $420 million) for southern communities, to be distributed over five years. Sderot is the only large town slated to receive the benefits, Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday.
Netanyahu also defended 2 percent budget cuts to government ministries to help pay for the war, which was estimated to have cost NIS 9 billion.
“Security comes first,” Netanyahu said. “We did great things, but this requires us to now roll up our sleeves to let the IDF, Shin Bet and other security branches continue to defend the State of Israel,” he said.
The Education Ministry, which faces the deepest cuts, is set to lose some NIS 695 million ($195 million), while the Transportation Ministry will find its budget trimmed by NIS 247 million ($69 million).
The measure is expected to easily pass the cabinet. However, it will still have to gain Knesset approval before being enacted.
According to Haaretz, the cuts will not affect salaries of civil servants, but will impact next year’s budget, which will be based on 2014′s reduced total.
Environment Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnua) and Housing and Construction Minister Uriel Ariel (Jewish Home) both oppose the plan, with Peretz arguing that the poorest sectors of Israeli society will suffer the most.