Interim Solution Worked Out for Armored Bus Shortage

A temporary solution to the severe shortage of bulletproof buses in the territories was worked out at an emergency meeting in the Transportation Ministry yesterday.

But in practice, say officials involved with the matter, the use of unarmored vehicles in the territories is likely to continue for some time.

The temporary solution is for the Dan bus cooperative to use bulletproof buses supplied by regional councils in the West Bank on all routes for which it lacks armored buses of its own, until such time as it obtains more armored buses.

This solution is not actually new: A similar plan was formulated in September, but was never implemented due to bureaucratic problems, such as arguments over who would pay for the insurance and a regulation that forbade the regional council buses to collect money from passengers. In the aftermath of Wednesday's deadly terror attack near Emmanuel, however, ways around these problems were apparently discovered yesterday.

But this stopgap measure does not change the basic reality: that there simply are not enough armored buses to go around.

The problem is particularly severe on Dan routes: Only 10 of the cooperative's 47 buses in the territories are bulletproof. The defense establishment blames this primarily on Dan's foot-dragging, saying the cooperative put in an order for armored buses only months after the government approved the funds this spring. Egged, in contrast, says that all 92 of its regular buses in the territories are bulletproof. But even Egged uses ordinary buses when it has to add extra runs on busy days.

The shortage of armored buses is due not so much to the NIS 400,000 price tag per bus - the government picks up the tab for this - but to two other factors: a production backlog, and the bus companies' unhappiness with the buses' ancillary costs. Armored buses weigh three tons more than the ordinary kind, and therefore use more fuel, suffer more mechanical breakdowns and generally have extremely high maintenance costs. They also wear out much faster, and only recently was an agreement reached with the Transportation Ministry on how to compensate the companies for this depreciation.

This shortage is the reason that IDF orders mandating bulletproof buses on most - though not all - roads in the territories have until now gone largely unenforced. On the road to Emmanuel, for instance, the Defense Ministry, the Transportation Ministry and the IDF all say that bulletproof buses were clearly required - though Dan insists that the road was not included on the list it received from the Defense Ministry.

Furthermore, all the relevant bodies were perfectly aware that Dan was ignoring this rule. But though the IDF is the body authorized to issue such orders, the Transportation Ministry is the only one with enforcement powers - and it declined to impose any sanctions on Dan.

Steps are being taken to ease the shortage. Dan, for instance, currently has 24 bulletproof buses on order, and says the first three will arrive in the coming days and another nine within the next few months.

Yossi Vardi, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's adviser on settlements, says that another 60 buses are currently being bulletproofed for other Israeli companies, and 120 more armored buses are planned after that. But each bus takes about 90 days to make, according to Merkavim, one of the companies that produces the buses.

Government officials say it would cost NIS 150 million over the next two years to buy the almost 400 additional armored vehicles that are needed (this figure includes ambulances and patrol cars as well as buses). However, most of this money has already been approved.