Who's Responsible for Protecting Israelis in an Emergency?

Government ministers will soon consider handing over many of the army's civil defense duties to the police, but politics will determine if and how the reform plays out.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

A great danger, hidden from public eye and terrifyingly subversive, has been threatening the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command for the past few weeks: Not new missiles that could slip through the Iron Dome missile defense system or the shortage of resources that could leave one in every eight Israelis unprotected in certain scenarios. The danger is called "reform." It's not a code name, but exactly what it sounds like – a plan to change the relationship between the government and the organizations involved in Israel's civil defense.

If enacted, the reform would eliminate half of the Home Front Command's powers, reducing it to a sort of rescue corps. It will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the "home front forum" headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – perhaps as soon as Thursday. Other members of the forum include Interior Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitz, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, his deputy Ze'ev Tzuk-Ram and Defense Ministry Director General Udi Shani.

Tensions between the Home Front Command – which is focused on protecting civilians during emergencies – and other Israeli officials were on display a week ago on the University of Haifa campus, where the school's Program for Coping with Emergencies held a conference. The genteel tone of the event barely concealed a heated disagreement between those who believe soldiers should not be deployed on domestic soil – like officials in the Defense Ministry and the Home Front Defense Ministry's legal advisor, Ahaz Ben-Ari – and those who wish to preserve the status quo – like the Home Front Command's legal advisor, Capt. Ido Amir.

Amir was sent to represent the Home Front Command at the conference after the participation of Col. Sigal Tadhar, the head of the Home Front Command's civilian population branch, was cancelled. He was apparently prohibited from explicitly badmouthing the reform to avoid a public confrontation with Col. (res) Ben-Ari from the military advocate general's office. As the legal advisor in the Prime Minister's Office under Yitzhak Rabin, in the Energy and Water Resources Ministry under Ariel Sharon and in the Tel Aviv Municipality under Mayor Ron Huldai, Ben-Ari probably understands the issue of civil defense better than any other lawyer in public service.

Reform is seen as necessary because the law currently gives the Home Front Command, IDF and Israel Police different roles in civil defense depending on the circumstances. In some cases, the police lead and the army – including the Home Front Command – assists, while in others, it is the opposite. When settlers must be evacuated, the army gives the police the honor, but when the home front is attacked while the country is at war, the army wants to take charge. IDF commanders find it unthinkable that they would take orders from police officers; while police district commanders resent the idea of answering to the commander of the home front, who is two ranks below them.

Home Front Command officers feel the situation is simple: Like all soldiers, the head of the Home Front Command answers only to the chief of staff. No minister, including the defense minister, can give him orders.

This may sound logical, but it is incorrect. The civil defense law clearly distinguishes between the IDF and the Home Front Command (actually referring to its predecessor the Haga civil defense program). The head of the Home Front Command is appointed and supervised by the defense minister after a recommendation from the chief of staff. While officers and other soldiers can serve in the Home Front Command, it is not meant to be part of the army. Like the police and the Shin Bet and Mossad security services, it is a parallel organization.

Two former Home Front Command heads, Maj. Gen Yair Naveh and Maj. Gen. Gabi Ofir, now director general of the Home Front Defense Ministry, have come out in support of reducing the Home Front Command's duties. Dan Halutz recommended eliminating the Home Front Command when he was chief of staff, despite the minor blow such a move would have dealt to his status.

Speaking on behalf of reform at the University of Haifa conference, Ben-Ari called for the Home Front Command to be deprived of its authority over civilians and relegated to army missions alone. In his vision, it would be "a headquarters with soldiers whose emergency duty is to save citizens and help them and to complete military missions between wars." This would represent something of a return to the Home Front Command's original role, determined at its creation following the Iraqi rocket attacks on Israel in 1991, as a sort of lifeguard that would dive in when the nation was drowning.

Ben-Ari also advocated amending Israel's civil defense law to give police authority at least equal to that of soldiers. The Home Front Command could then be enlisted to help the police in the same way as the fire department or the Magen David Adom rescue service.

The first step would be handing the Home Front Command's non-military powers over to the Home Front Defense Ministry. The ambitious Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan knows his ministry should ultimately be merged with the Interior Ministry, but which of the two ministries survives is an open question that is likely to be answered by political rather than practical considerations.

Eran has a political edge on Interior Minister Aharonovitz, but he will first have to overcome the collective resistance of Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Benny Gantz and Home Front Command head Eyal Eisenberg. Plus, the chairman of Aharonovitz's Yisrael Beiteinu party could yet get involved. In the end, Netanyahu will make the call, probably based on who ends up at the top of the heap.

The Home Front Defense Ministry's legal advisor, Ahaz Ben-Ari, advocates reform.Credit: Eyal Toueg

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