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Two days ago, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai presented his vision for the protection of Israeli civilians in the face of rocket attacks. In an emotional speech at a ceremony to mark the completion of the first stage of the construction of protected spaces for communities surrounding Gaza, Vilnai told the audience that he heads the committee for national protection, which is exploring ways to protect buildings across the country. Within weeks, he said, he will present the government with a plan to protect homes and buildings all over the nation, "in order to provide protection solutions for every Israeli citizen, as I know what is waiting for us in future conflicts."

Vilnai is a rare species: fair, practical and full of good intentions - a far cry from embodying most of the (largely justifiable) complaints Israelis have about their politicians. He is assisted in his most fundamental of tasks by members of the Home Front command, under the leadership of General Yair Golan. The assault on northern Israel by 4,200 rockets and missiles during the 2006 Second Lebanon War served as a wake-up call for both the Israeli leadership and the IDF top brass with regards to the protecting the home front.

Following the war, the understanding was reached that the enemy - within the framework of the "mukawama" (resistance) - will continue to view the Israeli civilian population as the central weak point, and it is there that it will focus most of its attacks. Israel has in recent years, for the first time, given serious attention to this threat. There will never be a totally comprehensive solution, yet what has already been achieved is definitely praiseworthy.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile making several points in the wake of Vilnai's remarks:

1. In stage 1 of the protection project, 2,500 protected spaces were constructed, at a cost of 330 million shekels, just for the communities within a 4.5-kilometer range of the Gaza border. The next stage, which has already begun, will see construction of another 5,000 protected spaces, costing 600 million shekels. This work excludes communities further away from the Gaza border, which are still under threat of rockets from Gaza. Last November, the head of military intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, warned that Hamas is trying out rockets with a range of close to 60 kilometers. Hypothetically, if the government opts to provide similar standards of protection for the entire area under threat, the budget will have to be doubled. This is without taking into account the rockets and missiles from Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which can strike at almost all of Israel.

2. The current protection doctrine leaves none of the responsibility in the hands of Israeli citizens. According to current legal conditions, citizens are entitled to complete state coverage even if they had knowingly disobeyed Home Front command directives during an emergency or in wartime. Thus, even those who, during the Second Lebanon War, were injured while stepping outside their homes to witness the damage in other pars of the city were recognized, and compensated, as victims of enemy fire. (The overwhelming majority of those killed during both the war in Lebanon and Gaza's Operation Cast Lead were hit while outdoors. Staying within secure confines usually provides good protection from Katyusha rockets, even if they can't necessarily block heavier rockets like the Scud.)

3. The current protection method can be described as "also and also and also." Israel's Rafael military development authority recently, very successfully completed the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Currently the system has not been included in the IDF budget, and the military intends to place the first two (and for now, only) systems on its bases, and is in no hurry to deploy them in the most threatened southern cities, Sderot and Ashkelon. It's likely that under pressure from southern municipal leaders more systems would be purchased in the future that would be then deployed in the cities. This makes sense. The only trouble is, that priorities have not been set. Politicians are wary of making a decision on what comes first - anti-missile systems, active defense systems (such as Arrow and Iron Dome), or personal protection such as bomb shelters, safe rooms and gas masks, which the government has recently decided to distribute to every citizen.

4. In 2007, senior Home Front command officials offered to make use of the need to protect Sderot to also upgrade the city's entire education system, which suffered from budget cuts as well as from low standards in some of the schools. Since the government has already decided on intensively protecting all the schools, this was a chance to develop education, culture and sports facilities. However, when it emerged Sunday that more funds were needed, money that would have to come from other areas under the Home Front command, the project was put on hold and the good intentions forgotten. This is a missed opportunity, since the issues plaguing peripheral towns don't start and end just with security concerns.

Posted by Amos Harel on March 9, 2010

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