Several mayors of southern councils close to the Gaza Strip spent Monday night sleeping in the Prime Minister’s Office, staking out his bureau amid a demand that the premier meet with them and declare publicly that it is safe for residents to return to their homes even as war in the Palestinian coastal enclave continues.
The mayors want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to give written confirmation and issue statements that residents who were evacuated from their homes due to the war can safely go back.
War erupted on October 7 when Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border with Gaza and rampaged through southern communities, slaughtering 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The 3,000 attackers who invaded the area also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages to Gaza, where over half remain in captivity.
Israel responded with an air, sea, and land offensive to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and release the hostages.
Southern communities, in particular those close to the Gaza border, have for years suffered rocket attacks from Gaza. The shock October 7 Hamas invasion also came under cover of a barrage of thousands of rockets fired across Israel. Rocket fire has continued sporadically ever since, with southern communities most often targeted. Tens of thousands of residents of southern communities were evacuated from their homes and have been put up in hotels in other areas of the country
The impromptu protest began after a Monday meeting between the mayors and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry to lay down the terms of government assistance southern residents will receive in the coming months as the government aims to encourage a return to their communities.
Mayors demanded to meet with Netanyahu but were told that a gathering could only be arranged for Tuesday afternoon. In response, they declared they would stay put in the PMO all night outside Netanyahu’s bureau until he saw them.
Security guards in the PMO threatened to force the mayors out of the building but eventually relented, according to reports.
“I have no intention of meeting with any official regarding the continuation of the discussion on the plan for the return of the residents until the prime minister, the defense minister, and the war cabinet make an official commitment to the public that it is safe to return home,” Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi told the Walla outlet Tuesday.
He called on Netanyahu to immediately meet with the mayors and make a “clear declaration to residents that it is safe to return.”
“We will no longer be Israel’s line of defense, after the abandonment, the massacre, and the heavy bereavement. This is the right of every citizen in the country — security,” Davidi said.
Itamar Revivi, head of the Hof Ashkelon Council, also spent the night in the PMO building.
“Besides a reasonable and fair economic and social framework for the families, we demand an official and public security commitment from Netanyahu and Gallant that the level of security allows for a full return,” he said.
In a joint statement, southern councils said: “We are not going back to October 6.” They likewise called on Netanyahu and Gallant to make public statements that communities are safe.
“We will no longer be cannon fodder,” the councils said.
At the Monday meeting, PMO and finance officials presented a framework that would end government funding for southern residents staying in hotels. across the country by May.
According to Hebrew media reports, the mayors rejected the deadline and it was pushed back until July 7.
However, mayors say that the Finance Ministry has nonetheless reduced the benefits that evacuated people are to receive.
Those who decide to leave the hotels and rent an apartment will no longer get an additional NIS 200 ($55) per adult and NIS 100 per child every month, but only just enough to cover the rent. Anyone who decides to return to their home will get a stipend that is just 75 percent of what those who already went home received until now.
Yossi Keren, head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, who also slept in the PMO, told Kan that the meeting the night before was “all about money, but what we need is security.”
Eshkol Regional Council head Gadi Yarkoni told Kan, “On the one hand, the state tells us that they want us to take the lead and promote the return of our residents to their homes, and on the other hand, they do not give us the civic tools [we need] and do not tell us what the plans are in Gaza. We are not told what security conditions we are going to live in.”
The new framework plan is to be presented to Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Tuesday.
Thousands have also been evacuated from northern communities due to attacks by Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, which says it is acting in support of the Gaza Palestinians. The Iran-backed group has fired across the border, killing soldiers and civilians and forcing the evacuation of local communities and towns. In an increasingly volatile situation, the IDF has responded by bombing Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.
In total there were estimated to be some 200,000 Israelis displaced from their homes due to the fighting in the south and north.
Many of the war evacuees have struggled with motivation and loss of confidence, while they are stuck in a hotel room or an apartment far from home work, and children are left without a proper education infrastructure.
Lawmakers heard Tuesday about the increasing difficulties surrounding the housing of tens of thousands of evacuees in hotels for some four months since the start of the war.
“They let a husband and wife into the same complex even though the husband had a restraining order,” Shai Kahan, the deputy head of the government’s program for evacuees, told the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.
“Youths are sitting in the hotel in Eilat or in Haifa and it creates a bad feeling,” he said.