Southern mayors demand clarity from Netanyahu on whether residents can return safely

Eshkol Regional Council’s Gadi Yarkoni says proper resources needed if population expected to come back, wants PM to be honest on reality of ongoing security situation

Gadi Yarkoni, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Gadi Yarkoni, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Eshkol Regional Council head Gadi Yarkoni railed Wednesday against the government’s lack of direct security and financial assurances to communities near the border with the Gaza Strip, a day after southern council heads slept in the Prime Minister’s Office, insisting on a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking to 103FM radio, Yarkoni demanded direct answers from the prime minister, highlighting the lack of resources and an adequate framework under which residents who were evacuated following Hamas’s devastating October 7 onslaught and the outbreak of war could return home.

“I go around my communities with senior military officials, and I don’t hear from everyone that it is safe to return here to Eshkol. Wherever it is safe, let’s return. But if we return, give these people the opportunity to decide on their own when they feel safe enough,” he said.

“It might cost a little more money. There are still no educational institutions in Eshkol. I managed to organize only one institution that works, but it’s filled with people and I don’t have anything left now. If anyone wants to return to Eshkol, I have no educational institutions. Instead of passing the budgets quickly, the state procrastinated for a month and a half,” Yarkoni added.

The mayors’ protest began after a Monday meeting between them and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry to lay down the terms of the government assistance southern residents will receive in the coming months as the state aims to encourage a return to their communities.

The mayors demanded to also 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, which did not end up happening.

File: Sderot Mayor Ilan Davidi asleep on a couch in the Prime Minister’s Office, February 5, 2024. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The mayors are demanding that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issue statements and provide written confirmation that residents who were evacuated from their homes due to the war can safely go back.

At Monday’s meeting, PMO and treasury officials presented a framework that would end government funding for southern residents housed 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, the 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.

October 7 was a “terrible catastrophe but now we are in February, and it’s not the same? No, friends, it will be like this for many years,” Yarkoni said Wednesday, adding that the real victory would be the return of all residents to help rehabilitate the region.

“Why doesn’t the prime minister come out and tell residents, ‘return home, but the dream that you had on October 8 that there would be no rockets won’t be the case. Know that there will still be [rocket] alerts,'” he said. “Why does nobody have the courage to say this? Why do I need to tell my residents this? They need to know that when they return, this is the reality of the situation.”

Soldiers walking next to the destruction by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz, a community in the Eshkol Regional Council, on October 7, 2023, in southern Israel, November 21, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The war erupted on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border with Gaza and rampaged through southern communities, slaughtering 1,200 people, mostly civilians. They 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 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.

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 and 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, including incidents of violence and sex abuse.

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