Analysis |

When Natural Disaster Strikes, Send in the Israeli Army

With the police ill-equipped to handle the scope of the winter storm, help comes primarily wearing a green uniform. Where was the Home Front Defense Ministry?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Now that the worst of the storm is behind us, the primary dilemma facing the emergency and rescue services is choosing between speed and safety. The fact that many communities in the north and the Jerusalem area are still cut off from the outside world and tens of thousands of people have had no electricity for three days demands an immediate remedy. At the same time, the weather conditions are still harsh, and one has to admit that the cumulative experience of the rescue forces in dealing with such conditions is not particularly great. Making too-rapid progress may lead to mistakes and malfunctions that could cause casualties among the rescuers.

That’s what happened four years ago during the Carmel Forest fire disaster, most victims of which were Prison Service cadets, police and firefighters coping with the fire. That’s why sometimes decisions are made that result in a delay in providing assistance – for fear of loss of life.

It will be a few days before we fully recover from the storm. Though dozens of vehicles belonging to the security forces were working Saturday to clear the roads to the cut-off communities, it will take time; only afterward can electrical repairs be made and assistance provided to residents who need it. From a preliminary summary of the past few days, it looks as if the authorities didn’t anticipate the strength of the storm and that their preparations for it were far from being sufficient. State assistance to the communities suffering from the storm, first among them Jerusalem and Safed, was somewhat slow in getting off the ground, though over the weekend it gained momentum.

In any case, and despite the suffering and damage, it’s doubtful that this was the national blunder or catastrophe it was made out to be during some television broadcasts on Friday. If such a storm happens once in 20 years, it’s hard to insist that the state allocate substantial resources for this contingency, given the many more pressing and common needs.

As usual during times of national crisis, what stood out was the reliance of the civilian system on the Israel Defense Forces, which is still the most organized and resource-rich body in the country. The police, with its limited budget and personnel, has a hard time coping with an event of such scope on its own. The storm also revealed the limitations of the local authorities: Even a big city like Jerusalem, headed by a mayor with a reputation as a can-do guy, needs outside help – and in the end such helps comes primarily wearing a green uniform.

The IDF’s organizational culture (cynics will say: also the lessons from investigative committees) requires the commanders to be out front. That’s why the defense minister, chief of staff, and several top generals were in Jerusalem and Safed over the weekend. By contrast, the social affairs minister, whose title this weekend was a political disaster as far as he was concerned, chose to be interviewed Friday night from his home in Dimona.

One body was missing from this emergency activity – the Home Front Defense Ministry. The prime minister activated a different command chain, headed by the Public Security Ministry. The fact that the Home Front Ministry was ignored raises again questions about its necessity. Over the past few months, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan has been waging a fierce battle to greatly expand the authority of his ministry at the expense of the Defense Ministry. But if during the storm we managed without him, it’s possible that in war, as well, it would be better to leave the Home Front Command subordinate to the Defense Ministry, as the command itself recommends.

Israeli soldiers helping out in Jerusalem on Saturday.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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