'Growth is impossible unless done right'

Over half of southern evacuees back home as officials prep massive rehabilitation push

About 32,000 out of 60,000 officially evacuated residents have returned to towns near Gaza, says an official working on an NIS 18 billion regional investment plan

Destruction caused by Hamas terrorists on October 7 seen in Kibbutz Beeri on December 19, 2023. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Destruction caused by Hamas terrorists on October 7 seen in Kibbutz Beeri on December 19, 2023. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

More than half of the evacuees from Israel’s south have returned to their homes, according to a government official working on rehabilitating the region.

According to the official, 32,000 out of the 60,000 people who were evacuated by the government from locales within a 7-kilometer radius (4.3 miles) of the border with Gaza are back in their communities. The official spoke to The Times of Israel on Thursday on condition of anonymity, citing the fact that he is not part of the government ministries authorized to speak to the media about rehabilitation.

Another 22,000 southern evacuees are living in about 180 government-subsidized hotels across the country. The rest are renting homes and receiving a subsidy of about NIS 6,000 ($1,650) per month per adult.

The government promised a repopulation grant of about NIS 15,000 per adult and NIS 62,000 per family ($4,100 and $17,000) to evacuees who moved back before March 7. The grant is halved with each passing week, down to a minimum of 12% of the maximum sum. The government will stop offering accommodations to evacuees in July, it has said.

Another approximately 60,000 people were evacuated from the north due to exchanges of fire with the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah. No deadline for their return has been set.

Balconies with Israeli flags in a hotel in the Dead Sea, southern Israel, November 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Tekuma Authority, the government body leading rehabilitation efforts in the south following the Hamas terror group’s October 7 onslaught from Gaza, has until March 18 to submit its five-year rehabilitation plan to the government. The government has allocated a budget of about NIS 18 billion ($5 billion) for the plan.

An amphitheater, a new beach strip, a research and development center, and two medical facilities are some of the amenities listed in a draft of the plan. The draft, whose details The Marker newspaper published earlier this week, shows that much of the budget is earmarked toward residential needs, which include renovating or rebuilding damaged homes (NIS 1.35 billion, or $370 million) and a similar expenditure on temporary accommodations, typically in hotels, for evacuees.

But about 30% of the money spent on construction and renovation will go to public facilities.

“We’re investing heavily in cultural and pastime activities because community, belonging, and, by extension, the resilience this creates, come from more than just having a roof over one’s head,” the official said. “The cultural, community events are the glue that keeps the fabric of society together.”

Zikim Beach — Israel’s southernmost regulated beach on the Mediterranean, where Hamas terrorists murdered 19 people on October 7 and damaged facilities — is to be renovated and upgraded “at lightning speed so that it can reopen for the upcoming beach season already,” the official said.

Weeds grow among the bleachers of the disused amphitheater in Kibbutz Gvaram. (Wikimedia Commons)

In nearby Kibbutz Gvaram, an amphitheater that was last used in the 1980s is to be renovated and reopened, providing a cultural venue for up to 1,200 spectators – a near-doubling of its previous capacity of 700. Southeast of Sderot, an auditorium in Moshav Yechini is to be renovated and reopened.

Less reliance on foreign workers

Agriculture and industry will see about NIS 512 million ($140 million) of the budget, according to the draft. Post-harvest automation processes are to receive NIS 100 million ($27 million) in a bid to relieve the dependency of farmers on foreign workers.

This automation push is unlikely to result in any short or medium-term remedies for the worker shortage that has crippled the region’s substantial agricultural sector since most of the foreigners left it following October 7. Economy Minister Nir Barkat has called for a speedy solution to the shortage of about 5,000 foreign workers in the region.

Earlier this week he accused the government of dragging its feet on incentivizing the arrival of foreign workers while, at the same time, blocking the employment inside Israel of Palestinian ones for security reasons.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat attends an Economic Committee meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on January 3, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Of the funds earmarked for agriculture, nearly half will go to establishing an aggrotech research center in the Tekuma Region, the new official name (Hebrew for “revival”) of the area widely known as the Gaza Envelope for its proximity to the Gaza Strip.

Education is to receive NIS 2 billion ($550 million) of the budget, translating into an investment of about NIS 10,000 ($2,700) per student. The Netanya-based Wingate Institute, which is one of Israel’s leading sports academies, plans to open a Sderot branch as part of the new rehabilitation plan with an NIS 400 million ($ 110 million) investment that’s part of the education package.

About NIS 600 million ($165 million) will go to health, including renovating clinics and expanding resilience centers, which are mental health clinics helping residents, and especially children, deal with anxieties related to Hamas hostilities. Two new medical centers, one in Sderot and another one outside that city, will account for NIS 70 million ($19 million) of the health budget.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch, center, and Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, to his right, visit Amit Haroe Elementary School in Sderot on the first day of school since the October 7 massacre, March 3, 2024. (Liron Moldovan/Flash90)

Expenditure on security in various Tekuma Region communities will cost about NIS 720 million (roughly $200 million) according to the draft of the new plan.

Asked about the draft, a spokesperson for the Tekuma Authority told The Times of Israel that it is one of several and that the final document will be presented to the public after its adoption by the government.

Need for augmenting compensation

Meanwhile, the Tekuma Authority is helping returnees regardless of the larger plan, the official who spoke anonymously said. The authority is setting aside some money for augmenting the Tax Authority’s compensations for war-related damages, he said.

As the towns rebuild, the authority, which is tasked with leading the rehabilitation efforts, will make up the difference in cases in which the property tax payouts are not enough, such as in the 12 towns that were most severely hit in Hamas’s October 7 attack. In that attack, some 3,000 terrorists who poured in from Gaza murdered some 1,200 people in the south and kidnapped 253. The official did not list the 12 towns.

“There are houses [in the south] that were defiled, burned, destroyed, and were subjected to shock and trauma with the families,” the official said.

Communities such as kibbutzim and moshavim may bring their own renovation and rehabilitation efforts to the Tekuma Authority, and, if approved, receive funding for those projects from the authority’s budget. Alternatively, the Tekuma Authority can manage all aspects of rehabilitation projects for the affected communities that wish to delegate that task to the government, the official said.

Each local authority will be given NIS 15 million ($4 million) for pressing rehabilitation projects.

“Growth is impossible if the south’s healing and rehabilitation are not done right,” he said. “That’s why we’re investing so much money.”

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