Hezbollah fire blights northern border settlements

Burnt out avocado plantation in Misgav Am  credit; Ofer Moskovich
Burnt out avocado plantation in Misgav Am credit; Ofer Moskovich

Farmers say this is a lost year, the state compensation fund looks inadequate, and the question arises: Will people return?

"My logistics center and offices went up in flames in one of the attacks on the settlement on Friday," relates Itzik Peretz, a grower of peonies from Moshav Shomera in northern Israel. "My son was there when it happened, just three meters from where the missile hit, and was saved by a miracle. This week, our sales period was due to have begun. Every year we work towards it, but now everything’s closed. It means that this year is lost."

When the Swords of Iron war broke out, 130,000 people were evacuated from border settlements in the north and the south. Many of the evacuees are still living in hotels, nearly three months after the evacuation, but there is one big difference the two groups. While those from the Gaza Strip border area have some degree of certainty, since the enemy in proximity to them is being dealt with by the army, those evacuated from the north are having to cope with considerable uncertainty about their future, and with an impossible present reality.

The fighting against Hezbollah grows more intense daily, and residents of the region are suffering from incessant missile fire from Lebanon. "It’s not an easy situation. Roads and tracks in the area are constantly being closed and opened," says David Cohen, CEO of the Ma’aleh Yosef Regional Council Economic Corporation. "A person who lives in the border zone gets up each morning and goes out to work, and doesn’t know when the siren, the missile launch, the explosion, or worse than that, will catch him."

The damage and destruction are evident in almost all the border settlements. Houses have been entirely burnt out, walls have collapsed, public buildings have been destroyed, and roads and infrastructure have been damaged by missile fire, and by IDF activity in the area. "There are checkpoints on all the roads, and signs warning of anti-tank missile fire," Cohen says. "At the same time, IDF armored vehicles are inside the settlements. The roads and sidewalks are destroyed, as are public buildings."

Eitan Davidi, chairperson of Moshav Margaliot and an owner of agricultural land in the area, is coping with a similar situation. During our telephone conversation with him, an alert was sounded in the settlement, warning of incoming missile fire from Lebanon. He experiences such alerts several times a day. "Margaliot is the most shelled place in Israel at the moment," he says. "They’re pounding us from every direction. Houses have been hit, agricultural buildings have been destroyed. Just a few days ago, a large farm with almost 170,000 laying hens was hit. The hens died. An anti-tank missile flew over my head, and a rocket landed beside my house. It’s a matter of meters. We’re at the front, and the army is behind us."

One of the main difficulties in the current round of fighting along the northern border is to do with agricultural areas. Until two weeks ago, in some parts of the border zone, it was still possible to reach plantations and tend them and work the crops. In the past two weeks, however, this has not been possible because of the security situation.

As a result, the coming year’s produce has been badly hit, and the farmers fear that the damage will be felt in the following years as well.

For Itzik Peretz of Shomera the situation is particularly critical. Flower growers work all year for just ten weeks in which demand peaks. That period is just starting, but Peretz can’t do anything. "We’re battling day by day, in crazy danger, but I know one thing: I’ll go into my fields, even illegally if necessary. No matter what, I won’t lose my farm. I have to go into the fields to irrigate them, to keep the flower bulbs alive. This is a business that I have nurtured for 24 years. If I can’t pick the flowers now, the IDF should at least allow me to give them water so that they’ll remain alive for next year. I have another 70,000 bulbs in refrigerators, worth NIS 15 each, but there’s no electricity, because Hezbollah hit that as well, and there’s no-one to talk to."

"These are businesses that people have worked all their lives to build," says Cohen of Ma’aleh Yosef. "They see their trees within touching distance and can’t access them to tend them. There are people aged 65 and 70 among them for whom this is their whole world. They can’t work anywhere else, and the financial compensation for the direct damage will not be sufficient for them. There has to be a broad solution."

Estimating damage from photographs

Meanwhile, Israel Tax Authority employees cannot come to inspect the extent of the damage caused to the northern settlements because the IDF has closed roads, and they are making do with estimates based on photographs, video and testimony from the region. "If the fighting in the north ended today, I’d estimate that we would receive between 5,000 and 7,000 claims for direct damage to property," says Amir Dahan, Compensation Fund Manager at the Israel Tax Authority, who is responsible for the system of compensation to civilians for war damage. "At a rough estimate, on the basis of past experience and the pictures were are receiving from the area, these claims could amount to compensation of between NIS 300 million and NIS 500 million - if the war were to stop now. But it’s an ongoing event, and the chances are that it will end with greater damage."

So far, residents of the north have filed 842 compensation claims for damage during the period of fighting, amounting to about NIS 21 million, a miniscule sum in relation to the compensation that will be paid when the full extent of the damage becomes clear. Of the claims, 407 were for damage to buildings, 254 for damage to vehicles, 11 for damage on agricultural land, and 170 for other kinds of damage.

Dahan says that the pictures coming in from the north indicate that the damage in the region is different from what we have known in previous wars. "The damage is from anti-tank missiles, and not just from Qassam or Katyusha rockets," he says. "Some of the missiles have been fired directly into homes. In addition, from the pictures, you can see damage in many fields, chicken coops, and packing sheds, which have been directly targeted.

"Other damage has been caused by army activity in the area, such as by tanks moving on roads in the settlements. That’s not something we haven’t seen before, and the war is still at its height. We expect that there will be a great deal more damage to infrastructure, roads, and electricity pylons. At this stage, however, because of the fear for human life, we are dealing with urgent cases only, such as infrastructure."

The Property Tax Compensation Fund is meant to finance the grants to businesses and the compensation to settlements damaged in the war. In October, "Globes" reported that Ministry of Finance sources estimated that the amount accumulated in the fund would be sufficient for paying compensation for damage in the first month of the war only.

When the war broke out, the fund amounted to NIS 18 billion. At least NIS 5 billion will be allocated to compensation for direct damage in October, and a further NIS 4.5 million is due to be paid out to compensate businesses for indirect damage in the first month of the war - and that’s an underestimate, as it does not take into account damage in the north of the country, and covers one month only. NIS 13 million are now estimated to remain in the fund, but even the compensation for October has not yet been fully paid.

The Tax Authority estimates that NIS 8 billion compensation will be paid for indirect damage in October alone. So far, only NIS 600 million have been paid for direct damage to property, out of the billions that will be required.

It should be pointed out that, in January this year, Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich halted the transfer of NIS 2.25 billion earmarked for the fund, and used the money to finance the reduction in excise duty on fuel and the cancellation of the tax on disposable utensils. Now, when the damage in the north continues to pile up, the question arises where the Ministry of Finance will find the money needed to compensate residents for war damage.

"If things don’t change, we won’t return

Besides the difficult situation in the present, a large question mark hovers over the future of the northern settlements, most of which are almost completely empty today. Will their residents return to live there as in the past, and if so when? "We love the moshav very much, but without security I won’t stay in a place where I can’t go outside my front door," says Davidi from Margaliot. "Only security will bring me back. Not more water, not more egg quotas, and not more land. We aren’t demanding a sense of security, but actual security. Unless there’s something that clearly changes the face of reality, I’ll lead a movement so that no-one will come back here."

"If the situation remains as it is, who’ll want to return?" says Ofer Moskovitz, a farmer from Misgav Am. "My fields are right next to the border fence, and I was never afraid, but now, it’s something different. People are scared. My daughters were supposed to come to live in Misgav Am with their children, and because of what has happened I told them, ‘Let’s think for a moment, let’s recalculate.’ One thing I’m sure of: in the end, all the northern settlements will remain for ever and won’t be wiped out. Perhaps a new generation will come to the region and the population will change, but we’ll always be here."

An IDF spokesperson said, "The IDF is working to minimize the damage from the activity of the forces in the northern settlements as much as possible. IDF Northern Command is in constant liaison with the local authorities, state authorities, and all concerned, in order to allow continuous functioning where and when possible, in accordance with the up-to-date situation assessment."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 27, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Burnt out avocado plantation in Misgav Am  credit; Ofer Moskovich
Burnt out avocado plantation in Misgav Am credit; Ofer Moskovich
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