newsIsrael at War

Is Israel doing enough to support evacuees?

"If only one-fifth of the evacuee families go bankrupt I think that will be a good outcome."

Israeli security forces inspect damage caused by a rocket fired from Lebanon in Kiryat Shmona, Feb. 15, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israeli security forces inspect damage caused by a rocket fired from Lebanon in Kiryat Shmona, Feb. 15, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.

While Israel’s Finance Ministry and National Insurance Institute agreed upon additional grants to unemployed evacuees just last week, some evacuees say not enough is being done to support those whose lives were uprooted by the war.

As Israel’s conflicts in both the north and south drag on, on March 3 an agreement was struck between Israeli government bodies to provide continued financial assistance to civilians displaced by the fighting. The Knesset’s Labor and Social Welfare Committee approved a deal obligating consultation between the Treasury and the NII to extend grants to unemployed evacuees.

The plan allows residents of evacuated settlements who have exhausted unemployment benefits to receive monthly grants based on their previous daily unemployment pay rate. Evacuees over 67 years of age who were employed before the war commenced will also receive financial assistance under the agreement.

“This is a significant and important response for the evacuees and their families,” said Knesset member Michal Waldiger, acting chair of the committee. “I very much hope that the agreement will be signed…and the grants transferred to the beneficiaries as soon as possible.”

The agreement is an attempt to bring Israelis some certainty during uncertain times. At the committee’s request, it will remain valid until August rather than expire at the end of March, with the possibility of a further extension.

For areas where a gradual return has been approved, like Sderot, the deal provides a transition period with grants continuing 30-90 days after evacuation orders are lifted to allow for reintegration.

“In a gradual return, some residents and business owners may not have returned, and some services may still be inactive. In such a situation, finding work is more complicated, hence the longer adjustment period,” explained Gili Cohen from the Treasury’s Budget Division.

While the government figures out the details of the scope of the unemployment benefits, life for the evacuees grinds on. According to Omri Lerner, a social worker assisting evacuees in the northern cities of Migdal and Tiberias, the situation is dire.

“There are tens of thousands of evacuees in the area…and the local economy can’t support that many new jobs,” he said. “Most of the evacuees had to go back to work on their farms or in towns in the conflict regions, and in some places, it is very difficult and dangerous to do this.”

Some 62,000 Israelis have been displaced from northern communities since Oct. 7 due to ongoing Hezbollah cross-border attacks.

On Monday, a Hezbollah anti-tank missile launched from Lebanon struck a plantation in Margaliot, a moshav in the Galilee panhandle. A 31-year-old foreign worker from Kerala, India, was killed and nine other foreign agricultural workers were wounded, two of them seriously. 

Lerner warned the prolonged crisis could devastate families financially. “Those who are putting off mortgage payments, or are taking loans to cover costs now, will need to pay them back after the war, and in the meantime interest is collecting and people will be hit with a financial crisis at the end,” he cautioned. “If only one-fifth of the evacuee families go bankrupt I think that will be a good outcome.”

The human costs transcend mere economic hardship.

“We are losing a generation from an educational standpoint,” Lerner lamented, citing children pulled from their social structures and crammed into makeshift schools in hotels. “This is the same generation that lost time and connections due to the pandemic, and now we’re losing them from a social standpoint and an educational standpoint, as another year passes without proper education,” he said. “Some of the makeshift classes have between 50-60 students per teacher.”

Lerner criticized the government’s response to the crisis.

“The country didn’t think about what the long-term effects would be on the people when they gave the evacuation orders. The fallout from the people who are going to be entering into severe debt will end up costing the country a lot more,” he said.

He urged national interventions such as prohibiting evacuee layoffs and having “the government take on the salaries and reimburse the employers to keep people afloat.”

The situation is particularly acute in the north, said Lerner.

“The government simply doesn’t care about the citizens in the north,” he said. “I think that people here are coming to a boiling point. The situation in the north is so bad that people here are on the verge of revolt.”

Ofir Yehezkeli, deputy mayor of Kiryat Shmona, one of the hardest hit areas, echoed Lerner’s concerns about the grants’ limitations. “The main issue is that people were evacuated, and many of them were put on halat [paid leave] and given 75% of their salary, which is something but not enough, and from that point it is as if they are unemployed,” he said.

For those exhausting unemployment benefits, the new agreement offers a temporary reprieve. But Yehezkeli highlighted other economic woes looming for evacuees.

“Another serious problem is rental payments or mortgage payments. The country hasn’t been able to deal with the issue of rentals, and it’s a major issue. People who have to renew leases on properties that they cannot live in are in a conundrum. Should they renew their lease and keep paying for an apartment they don’t know when they’ll be allowed to return to, or should they not pay and risk losing the property altogether?”

Yehezkeli acknowledged however that the government was making an effort, and emphasized the main goal. “The government is trying to find solutions, some have succeeded more, others less so. But I hope that they manage to return security to the north, as that is the most important thing,” he said.  

While the Finance Ministry and NII are codifying financial remedies for the unemployment problem, the cross-ministerial Tkuma Directorate established by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is working on longer-term solutions, albeit only for the evacuees from the Gaza periphery.

Tkuma is working for the benefit of the evacuees and residents of the Gaza envelope and has created an extensive plan to help the evacuated residents until they can return, and has also created a large-scale plan to rebuild and further develop the region.

As the war drags on, Israel’s government will continue to strive to address the economic and societal problems it is causing. The degree to which these efforts will be successful remains to be seen.

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