Government delays vote on rehabilitation plan for northern border towns

Cabinet to now vote Monday on proposal once details hashed out, with ministers and council heads criticizing plan; one minister says some money allocated to already funded projects

Security forces and emergency personnel deploy at a site hit by rockets fired from southern Lebanon in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona, on May 5, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)
Security forces and emergency personnel deploy at a site hit by rockets fired from southern Lebanon in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona, on May 5, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

The government on Wednesday evening postponed an expected vote to approve a rehabilitation plan for northern communities battered by Hezbollah rocket and drone attacks, amid ongoing disputes over the proposed program.

The NIS 3.5 billion ($950 million) plan has encountered criticism from ministers and council heads who view it as insufficient. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met municipal heads of cities and towns near Israel’s northern border on Monday, he promised a decision on the funds would be reached within 48 hours.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told the Ynet news site that the vote is now set to happen on Monday, with Wednesday’s meeting instead aimed at altering the program as requested by the local leaders.

Around 60,000 residents of towns and villages along Israel’s northern border have been forced from their homes since October due to near-daily cross-border rocket and anti-tank missile attacks by Hezbollah and other terrorists in southern Lebanon. The attacks have persisted despite repeated Israeli warnings that it could launch a war to push the threat away from the border and return normalcy to the region, with most evacuees facing the prospect of remaining homeless for the foreseeable future.

“The vote on the plan has been delayed until Monday in order to legally review the decision, and since final changes were made even today, the short time frame did not allow voting yet,” said Moshe Davidovich, who is chair of the Mateh Asher Regional Council and also heads a group of northern regional council heads.

Davidovich said there was progress in answering the demands of regional council leaders. He said that he expected the government to hold a vote on the budget and provide northern residents with hope of returning home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with municipal heads from cities and towns on Israel’s northern border, May 19, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Earlier Wednesday, Tourism Minister Haim Katz said he planned to vote against the plan because it does not provide an adequate response for the north’s tourism industry.

“Ignoring the tourism industry and the hundreds of thousands of workers who rely on it is a tragedy for generations,” he said in a statement.

Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter told Ynet that funds were allocated for projects that were unnecessary or had already been accounted for, and also grumbled that he was not part of the panel of ministers managing the emergency efforts.

Citing an example, Dichter said no funds were set aside to repair drainage infrastructure that’s been destroyed, while millions of shekels were allocated to clearing chicken coops in the threatened area, despite funds already having been earmarked for that project.

He also said millions were allocated to encourage Israelis to volunteer in areas targeted by Hezbollah, instead of employing foreign workers.

“They will involve the agriculture minister if they want or not. Agriculture is the lifeblood of the area of the evacuated communities and must be part of the response. How is it that the agriculture minister is not part of this committee, it’s ridiculous. There’s no other words to describe it,” Dichter said.

Rockets leave smoke trails behind as they are launched from southern Lebanon toward Israel on May 16, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah. (Photo by AFP)

One issue raised earlier this month is that the plan allocates only NIS 1.4 billion ($375 million) to provide to all northern towns with protection from rocket fire, while Kiryat Shmona — which has been frequently targeted since Hezbollah initiated the cross-border skirmishes — itself needs NIS 2 billion ($536 million) to adequately deal with the issue.

Another complaint was that the program does not provide tax benefits to northern residents, thereby disincentivizing residents and businesses from returning to the bombarded area.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 14 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 311 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 61 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

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