Meeting local leaders, PM vows to restore security to north, refuses to talk timeline

In meeting described by Hebrew media as ‘stormy,’ Netanyahu declines to say when tens of thousands of evacuees can return, saying that would telegraph plans to Hezbollah

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

In a meeting on Sunday with municipal heads of cities and towns near Israel’s northern border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to restore security to the area, most of which has been evacuated of civilians since October.

Hebrew media reported that the northern leaders had pushed the prime minister to give them a date by which residents would return to their homes, but that the prime minister refused.

“I am not going to tell Hezbollah what we are going to do,” Netanyahu told the local leaders, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office. “I am not going to share with our sworn enemy the dates and how we are going to do it.”

The head of the local council in Shlomi, a small town in Israel’s Northern District, told the Ynet news outlet that it was a “stormy discussion” and that the prime minister had “heard their complaints.”

The forum, which also included ministers and advisers from various departments in the government, discussed details of a plan Netanyahu is advancing to fund the reconstruction of the northern border area, which is slated to be brought to the government for approval this week.

“We have a 48-hour deadline for this decision, and we are going to finish it right away,” the prime minister said.

It was the first time Netanyahu had met with a forum of northern officials since a meeting four months ago, according to one local official, who said that in January, the prime minister committed to presenting a plan within 10 days.

Since then, frustration has risen among leaders who say the government has not adequately responded to the needs of the tens of thousands of evacuees, or made crucial decisions about how to address the security threat from Hezbollah in the north.

Officials were further angered when Israeli media quoted Netanyahu as having said in a recent cabinet meeting, in response to a concern raised by war cabinet minister Benny Gantz: “So what if they return to their homes a few months after September.” September 1 is the start of the school year.

A picture taken from southern Lebanon shows smoke rising above the northern Israeli town of Metula following a strike from the Lebanese side on May 16, 2024. (Rabih Daher / AFP)

However, Shimon Guetta, head of the Ma’ale Yosef Regional Council in the Upper Galilee, told Ynet that he was surprised and pleased by Netanyahu’s attitude and attentiveness, adding: “There are still a few points that we are working on, [but] the direction is good.”

The mayor of Kiryat Shmona, Avichai Stern, said: “This is not the end of the road, and we have a lot more work to do.” He added that he was “grateful for this, that finally, after seven months, we are getting some attention.”

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.

The attacks led Israel to evacuate residents from communities along the border, and some 60,000 Israelis remain internally displaced in government-funded accommodations.

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 305 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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