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Previous state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg hesitated momentarily when he was asked to describe how he felt looking at pictures of bomb shelters in the north. The former judge had difficulty deciding if he was only surprised or angry as well. Prior to the conversation with Haaretz he perused the chapter "The preparedness of the northern communities in the wake of the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from Lebanon" in the annual State Comptroller's Report 52A for 2001. "It's a real shame that this report did not receive serious attention," said Goldberg yesterday. "It proves that the writing was on the wall for all those involved in the matter, and first and foremost the Defense Minister and the local authorities."

"Had they devoted the proper attention and thought in the wake of this report, we would be in a much better situation," he said, regarding the investigation that related in detail to the problem of the bomb shelters in Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya and other border communities in the north. He says that although the defense establishment had plans to improve the situation, they were not implemented "and they didn't invest even the minimum." He is not convinced that the scandalous condition of the shelters stems from a budget shortage rather than neglect. There were even more discussions about the evacuation of the residents of the border communities in times of emergency, recalls Goldberg, but those authorized to act did not consolidate them into a plan of action and did not prepare the population for this possibility. "I really ask myself who I was working for," he sums up.

Goldberg's successor, justice Micha Lindenstrauss, has acquired the reputation of a state comptroller who works in real time. We can assume that the report on the war in the north and certainly on the home front's preparation will be issued soon, and there is no question that the new comptroller will carefully read the previous report on this matter, and will settle accounts with all those who shoved it into a drawer.

"The exit from Lebanon led to a situation in which additional communities are now exposed to the same threats to which mainly border communities were exposed in the past," predicted the State Comptroller's Report five years ago.

For half a year, from July 2000 to February 2001, the comptroller's representatives visited northern communities and examined preparedness for the same threats, and mainly the plans for protection against them. The bottom line: "The border communities lack protection as compared to what was decided. The plan that was approved for additional 'security elements' was not budgeted in its entirety, and as a result the plan that was approved to protect those same communities was not completed."

The security gaps

The comptroller warned that although the chief of staff defined the preparedness of the northern communities - after the IDF's withdrawal without an agreement - as an emergency plan that required an accelerated procedure, there were many delays in installing security elements. He warned that "the firing of Katyushas on communities at a range of up to 21 kilometers from the border, including 14 communities in the Golan Heights (Group C) that are exposed to high-trajectory fire, will find them unprepared for this situation."

Not only that, the comptroller cited the head of the Northern Command, who foresaw that "in light of the improvement in the weapons found in the hands of the terrorist organizations, the threats to the northern communities have expanded even beyond those that were defined for Group C." However, although no change took place in the Northern Command's analysis of the threats, the report states that the plans that were prepared afterwards did not include the needs of the communities in Group C in the context of the plan for protecting the communities.

Presentations by the Northern Front to the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff in March 2000, regarding the exit from Lebanon without an agreement, included a reference to Group C communities' security needs. However, even then, the budgetary demands involved were not presented. According to Home Front Command statistics, the shortage of shelters in the communities in this group comes to about 61 percent (about 108,000 square meters.)

The comptroller suggested drawing conclusions from Operation Accountability in 1993 (a major raid into Lebanon), when many residents of the border communities were forced to stay in shelters for about a week, and mentions that already that year the comptroller's report mentioned a prolonged stay in the shelters should be taken into account. Among other things, the report said that the existing shelters were built according to the concept of protection determined in the 1950s, and met the needs of a relatively short stay in a shelter.

The security officer of the Kiryat Shmona municipality reported already in 2000 on the problems of the public shelters and those in apartment buildings, and warned that they were not suitable for a stay of more than two to three hours. Although the new shelters that were built were better equipped, they were also small and could not contain all the residents meant to use them. The keys to the shelters are copied, and then get into the hands of people who cause serious damage to the equipment in the shelters.

In Nahariya, too, the IDF and municipality representatives reported in 2000 that the 155 public shelters in the city were not suitable for a prolonged stay. A visit by comptroller representatives to a number of public shelters in Nahariya revealed a series of defects: a lack of switches for the main fuses, for the fans and the electric light bulbs, exposed electrical wires, broken ceilings and fans pulled out of their places. At the time, the municipality security officer blamed the civilians with keys to the shelters.

In December 2000 , a shelter-monitoring system was completed in Kiryat Shmona; it was supposed to prevent unwanted people from gaining access to the shelters. A similar system was planned for Nahariya, Maalot and Shlomi as well, but since the program was not fully budgeted, it was not installed.

As part of the IDF plan to protect the communities, the renovation of about 2,000 shelters began in September 2000, at a cost of NIS 20 million. Some of the shelters were renovated with an eye on adapting to a prolonged stay, such as the installation of air conditioners.

In spite of that, the Home Front Command claimed already then that an additional budget of about NIS 60 million was necessary to completely adapt shelters for a prolonged stay. The 2001 State Budget did not include funding for this purpose. The Finance Ministry informed the comptroller that the intifada had changed the order of priorities of the defense establishment, particularly in the area of protecting the home front. As a result, it was impossible to complete the plan for protecting the border communities, including the construction of security rooms and the completion of security arrangements in the communities, installation of a system for monitoring shelters in Shlomi, Nahariya and Ma'alot, and an upgrading of the public address system.

The failures in the area of public address systems were also known in advance. The comptroller found that the systems in Metula, Manara, Kfar Szold and Gonen were not in working order, and in certain places they did not "cover" the entire community, although all the border communities were exposed to the threat of penetration of terrorists and the firing of Katyushas.

The issue of payment of wages at a time of what is defined as "a special situation on the home front," is not new. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare informed the comptroller in 2001 that the proposal to amend the law of employment in times of emergency was under discussion between the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the treasury.

Inquiry findings

That was five years ago, five years after the Prime Minister's Office began to discuss the plans for evacuating residents from conflict zones. The comptroller found that already in October 1996 there had been a meeting in the PMO to draw conclusions from the evacuation of residents during Operation Grapes of Wrath (the massive bombardment of south Lebanon). "The meeting served as a spur for a long inter-ministerial discussion, which focused on determining the authority to order the evacuation of residents, the consolidation of contingency plans on the issue and the budgetary and constitutional aspects of activating the plan," says the report. But the discussion ended without anything being done.

In February 1998 the PMO's director general ordered the establishment of an inter-ministerial team to discuss the subject of evacuation. In May 1999 the team submitted its recommendations regarding the emergency situations in which there would be a need to evacuate and absorb a population of up to 25,000 residents. The plan was even dubbed "A time of evacuation."

In his response to the inquiry's findings, in February 2001, the PMO announced that the director general had often asked that the procedure for "A time of evacuation" be brought up in a cabinet discussion, but "the subject was not brought up because of more urgent issues." In effect, up until the end of the inquiry, the plan for "A time of evacuation" had not yet been discussed in the cabinet.

The pictures from Arkadi Gaydamak's tent city and the harsh pictures of abandoned elderly people in the north demonstrate that nothing has changed since then. The response published by the PMO's division of government criticism, in September 2001, states that "the Home Front Command will begin discussions with the treasury within a month, on the matter of suitable funding for adapting the shelters for a prolonged stay and suiting them to become bifunctional, in accordance with the remarks of the State Comptroller. Within three months the Defense Ministry will prepare instructions and mandatory rules of operation for a time when a 'special situation on the home front' is declared, according to the law of civil defense, and the ways that have been determined to implement them."

Report from a city under fireOver two weeks ago, after the first of Katyusha landings in Safed, Yossi Kucik, who served as the director general of the Prime Minister's Office during Ehud Barak's term, acceded to current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request to go to Safed to help the authorities of the city under fire. He returned home only a few days ago. Here is an official brief of his stay there:

"Mayor Yishai Maimon and the members of his staff gave me a warm welcome. An hour after joining them, I experienced firsthand the meaning of a Katyusha routine: a frightening siren, a quick dive for shelter, a nerve-racking wait for landings, sharpening our ears to locate the landing area and waiting until we understood where it fell, who was hurt and what damage was caused. That repeats itself several times a day. Tension and anxiety, and in spite of that, the need to function.

"With the help of the Home Front and the police, we began to check all the public and private bomb shelters. With the outbreak of the battles, most of the residents of Safed left the city. In normal times the city has a population of about 32,000. At present about 7,000-8.000 people are living there, most from the weakest sectors of the population. Out of 250 municipal workers, only about 30-40 are now at work.

"The conditions are intolerable. I saw bomb shelters that even a cow being threatened by a Zelzal missile would not be willing to enter. We found new mothers with week-old infants on the floor of the shelter, elderly people in distress, sick people in need of medicine, people in need of hospitalization. They are all stuck in shelters, unable to take care of themselves. Since the war broke out completely by surprise, the population was not psychologically prepared, the shelters, especially those in private homes, were not prepared in advance - certainly not for a prolonged stay. The shock was great and the ability to provide a proper solution, in the absence of public transportation and with an acute shortage of manpower, is very limited.

"We cannot expect the mayor - whose actions I greatly admire - with a number of workers and volunteers, to succeed in providing solutions to such great and extensive distress, to such difficult populations. The government must bring together large forces of the Home Front, the police and Magen David Adom. With the assistance of the local government and the volunteers, it must provide a quick solution to large populations in distress who are spending such long periods in shelters. In light of the possibility that the war will continue for several more weeks, there is an immediate need to prepare for an emergency routine. If not, things are liable to get out of control."