The Eshkol Regional Council in the Negev is seeking to merge five of its communities into a single township to increase the benefits residents can obtain from the state.
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Communities located within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip are entitled to special government benefits, including funding for building rocket-proof rooms in their homes. But the communities of Ohad, Tzohar, Sde Nitzan and Talmei Eliyahu are all outside the required range. Hence, the regional council wants to merge them with Amioz, a community inside the seven-kilometer limit, to make them eligible for benefits as well.
The merger is expected to cost the state tens of millions of shekels, if not more. But an Interior Ministry committee has already approved it, and it’s now awaiting final approval from Interior Minister Aryeh Dery.
The minutes of the panel’s first meeting, which were obtained by Haaretz, show regional council officials arguing that the merger would reduce administrative costs and increase efficiency. Moreover, they said, there was no justification for maintaining separate administrations for neighboring communities that effectively share their institutions.
But a glance at the map shows that while the first four really are adjacent, Amioz is a kilometer away from the rest.
The benefits residents would obtain from the merger were mentioned only toward the end of the meeting, when the committee chairman asked Meir Yifrah, deputy head of the regional council, a direct question. “These communities will receive benefits, and that could be an advantage,” Yifrah replied.
Tomer Gothelf, an urban planner representing the regional council, explained that young couples thinking of moving to the area want to live in towns that entitle them to government-funded reinforced rooms.
Responding to Haaretz’s questions, the ministry said the panel’s recommendations were submitted to the ministry’s director general, who requested additional information that hasn’t yet been received.
In 2008, the government decided to build reinforced rooms for all houses within 4.5 kilometers of Gaza. Most of the money came from the state budget, and the remainder from the Jewish Agency. According to the Housing and Construction Ministry’s website, some 9,100 rooms were reinforced at a cost of 927 million shekels ($240 million).
Four years later, due to the worsening security threat from Gaza, the government increased the range to seven kilometers. and allocated another 270 million shekels, supplemented by 40 million shekels from the Jewish Agency, for reinforcing another 1,700 rooms.
Families who preferred to build their own reinforced room, rather than letting the government do it, received a grant of 103,000 shekels each. Those who built reinforced rooms between January 2006 and the date of the cabinet’s decision were granted retroactive grants of about 90,000 shekels each.
For the regional councils, the grants posed a problem, because communities within the same council, and often located in close proximity, were getting different levels of government funding. Moreover, the Eshkol Regional Council argues, the seven-kilometer limit was arbitrary and didn’t match the actual security threat.
On top of the reinforced rooms, the government decided after the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza to give individuals and businesses within the seven-kilometer limit various other benefits, in an effort to bolster the area. They included income tax and municipal tax breaks, development grants, increased quotas to employ migrant laborers in agriculture, priority in bidding for government contracts and much more.
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the cost of these benefits at 1.3 billion shekels, not including the extra 400 million shekels the state gave local governments near Gaza during the war.
Yifrah, who represents the moshavim in the regional council, is the driving force behind the merger plan. Three of the four communities slated to benefit from the merger are moshavim. He himself lives in one of them, Ohad.
At this stage, it’s hard to estimate the merger’s precise cost. A source who attended the Interior Ministry panel’s meetings said the financial implications of the proposal were never discussed. Moreover, the Finance Ministry wasn’t informed of the proposal, so it never assessed the costs. But based on official estimates published in the past, the price tag could well reach hundreds of thousands of shekels.
The reinforced rooms alone cost 100,000 to 180,000 shekels apiece. Even in the unlikely event that all 450 households in the four affected communities chose to build themselves and take the 103,000-shekel reimbursement, the cost would exceed 45 million shekels. And that doesn’t include the cost of all the other benefits.
The regional council said it has seven adjacent communities that share schools, health clinics, agricultural land and more. These shared institutions are all within the seven-kilometer limit. Moreover, the four communities outside this line are only a few dozen meters from it, and face all the same security threats, including rocket fire. Hence there’s no justification for the arbitrary distinction between these two groups of communities.
It also noted that, following the 2014 war, the cabinet decided to “examine the municipal status of these communities, including their merger, so as to grant them equal treatment.” The council’s merger proposal was submitted pursuant to this decision, and complied with all the standard procedures, it said.
The merger, it concluded, was necessary “to ensure the existence of a united community that will make it possible to maintain settlement and growth on this piece of land.”