ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Ashkelon mayor blasts Smotrich for leaving residents with ‘only prayer for protection’

At meeting, Tomer Glam lambasts finance minister for lack of financial support; Sderot mayor assails ministers and officials: ‘We need the money today’

Tomer Glam, mayor of Ashkelon, during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 16, 2023 (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Tomer Glam, mayor of Ashkelon, during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 16, 2023 (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

During a meeting Monday, Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam denounced Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and other officials for failing to offer support to his coastal city, which has come under heavy rocket fire in recent days after years of complaints that many of the residents do not have access to shelters.

“Evacuate those who are without protection. If you have not protected those who have asked for it for years, then evacuate them. What are you waiting for?” Glam demanded at a meeting of a newly established committee to oversee economic activity during the Gaza-Israel war.

“What answers do you have for those people, who, apart from praying that they won’t be hurt, have nothing?” Glam asked, according to a readout of the meeting.

Glam told the committee that despite the Defense Ministry giving its approval for Ashkelon to be considered akin to Gaza border communities when it comes to funding, the decision was scuppered by Smotrich’s Finance Ministry.

“Businesses are closed, Ashkelon is a ghost town, we are dealing with losses of hundreds of millions of shekels,” he said. “We understood that the Defense Ministry gave approval [for funding] and then they told me that the Finance Ministry did not approve.

“They put out an announcement that Ashkelon received NIS 100 million ($25 million), but it hasn’t yet. For seven years I’ve been shouting,” Glam said.

“Designate Ashkelon as part of the [Gaza] periphery. It is part of the periphery, unfortunately. I have to wait for the committee so that a few million shekels can go through,” he said, using the term for the Gaza border communities.

Glam also directed his anger toward Finance Ministry Director General Shlomi Heisler, lambasting officials for their slow response, the Ynet news site reported.

“Come, be a hero, go out there and see. I’m at war!” he said.

“On Monday, the finance minister informed me that NIS 5 million was being transferred, but it was only transferred on Thursday — what is this red tape?” Glam said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 16, 2023 (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Smotrich repeated his statement from Sunday that the government had “failed in the first line of defense of physical protection for the citizens,” but said the committee would now make decisions to help the “second line of defense.”

Glam made similar comments at a meeting of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, and said everyone involved in the decision-making would be held to account for their actions when the war ends.

“After everything is over we will settle the score with whomever is necessary. The city of Ashkelon is the most vulnerable — we have dead, wounded and thousands of people suffering acute anxiety. The state is only now starting to understand events,” Glam said.

“We’ve already spent NIS 20 million ($5 million) on bulletproof vests that you didn’t provide for the soldiers, on generators,” Glam said.

An Ashkelon resident and his son make their way to safety after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists hit a building in the southern city, October 9, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

That meeting was also addressed by Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, who said money needed to be immediately transferred to local authorities so they could deal with the multiple issues they face.

“We learned during the pandemic that local government functions best for the residents, and in order to function, we need money. We need the money today,” Davidi said, according to Ynet.

“I’m setting up civilian defense teams today, I can’t wait for the army,” Davidi said.

Civilian defense teams provide security to small towns and communities in Israeli border towns and in West Bank settlements. Member of such teams helped defend residents of the Gaza border communities as Hamas carried out its deadly onslaught on October 7, with some holding off gunmen for long hours before troops arrived, and many others killed as they attempted to defend their homes.

Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern city of Sderot, attends a press conference in Jerusalem, March 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Based on a government decision, Smotrich’s committee is authorized to discuss war-related civilian issues including, but not limited to, the economic impact on private companies and the public sector, the rehabilitation of Gaza border communities and ensuring continued functionality of civilian services.

The successor to a panel originally created in June to tackle the soaring cost of living and chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ministerial Committee for Social and Economic Affairs will now fall under Smotrich’s purview.

The new powers granted to the committee will be in effect until the end of the war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a security cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, October 7, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At a press conference on Sunday, Smotrich said he had instructed authorities to change the order of priorities for budget allocation.

The finance minister said he was pained by Israel’s enormous security failures leading up to and during the Hamas attack, adding: “I take responsibility for what has happened and what will happen. We have to admit with pain and with a bowed head — we failed. The country’s leadership and the security system failed to maintain the security of our people.”

Asked by a reporter if he might resign over such failures, Smotrich said: “There will be enough time for soul-searching, and perhaps score-settling.” He said among matters that would need looking into would be the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2005 Gaza Disengagement.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s Tax Authority opened up applications for an estimated NIS 80 million ($20 million) of monetary assistance grants for residents of Gaza border communities who were evacuated or chose to leave in the period of time since Hamas launched its mass assault on October 7.

Israelis load their belongings onto a bus as they evacuate from the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Oct. 15, 2023 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Residents of communities within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip border are eligible for grants, according to a cabinet decision.

The grants — NIS 1,000 ($250) per person and up to NIS 5,000 ($1,250) per family — are intended to assist evacuees with their initial expenses.

The grants are not considered compensation for property damage and will not count against future damage claims, a spokesperson for Smotrich explained.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been displaced internally since the war began with Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught against southern Israel, in which 1,500-2,000 terrorists burst across the border and killed over 1,300 Israelis, most of them civilians.

Israeli soldiers around the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The evacuation of Sderot — a city of some 30,000 on the Gaza border — is almost completed. Residents of communities less than 4 kilometers from the Gaza border have been evacuated, and evacuations are ongoing in communities 4-7 kilometers from the Gaza border.

The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry also announced Monday that they were planning to evacuate civilians who live in towns up to two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the Lebanese border amid repeated rocket and missile attacks by Hezbollah and allied Palestinian factions in recent days.

Sharon Wrobel and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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