Analysis

For Decades, Everyone Has Avoided Taking Responsibility for Civil Defense in Israel

On Tuesday, for the first time in 29 years in Greater Tel Aviv, schools shut and most workers were told to stay home

Israeli police officers examine the site moments after a rocket fired by Palestinians militants from Gaza hit a main free way between Ashdod and Tel Aviv near Ashdod Israel, November 12, 2019.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Will school be canceled or not? Should I go to work? These were the questions facing residents of the Tel Aviv area Tuesday after rockets fired by Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip reached the city. The rocket barrages have continued, but thanks to the Iron Dome anti-missile system and apparent discipline on the part of Israel’s population, there have been relatively few injuries and no fatalities on the Israeli side as I write this.

Tuesday morning left millions in the Greater Tel Aviv area confused, however, which is not a surprise considering the directives that were issued by the Home Front Command, the civil defense unit of the Israel Defense Forces. The writing has been on the wall regarding this confusion for the past 13 years, since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, or perhaps more accurately for the past 68 years, and no one should expect a resolution of the situation any time soon.

Israel’s civil defense law was passed in 1951 and pertained to a civil defense entity known by its Hebrew acronym, Haga. But Haga no longer exists. In practice, it has been replaced by the army’s Home Front Command, but the 1951 legislation has never been amended, so the entire responsibility for civil defense in the country exists without a statute authorizing it. And the Home Front Command is not authorized by statute either.

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That didn’t stop the Home Front Command from issuing a directive that millions of Israelis should not to go to work on Tuesday, unless they were in “essential” jobs. An hour later, the directive was relaxed for the Tel Aviv area, advising people that they could go to places of employment where there are civil defense shelters (which includes almost every workplace in the country).

But neither directive had any legal effect, which is also why they were labeled “guidance.” The Home Front Command can’t order anyone around. It can only provide guidance. And people follow its guidance.

The absence of a relevant civil defense law — and the defeat of a bill on the subject that Maj. Gen. (res.) Matan Vilnai tried to have passed at one point — is not happenstance. Since 2006, following missteps in the Second Lebanon War, and an understanding that in future wars, the home front would become a war front, repeated efforts to set the issue straight through legislation have failed.

Instead we have had squabbling between officers at the Home Front Command and staff at an agency called the National Emergency Management Authority over the division of responsibility between them. NEMA, the emergency authority, which was established as a result of the problems that surfaced during the 2006 war, was designed to be the civilian entity that would manage the economy during periods of emergency.

All of the authority to handle emergencies (including wars and natural disasters, such as earthquakes) was supposed to have been transferred to it. NEMA was to have taken the reins and issued orders to local governments, those responsible for essential infrastructure (water, electricity, communications), government ministries and even civilian agencies such as the police and fire departments. NEMA was also supposed to be responsible for advance preparations for all of these civilian entities, to make sure that if an emergency arose, they would be equipped and trained to deal with it well.

For its part, the Home Front Command was supposed to be responsible literally for civil defense – search and rescue and evacuation and the like. In practice, however, NEMA has remained relatively weak, with limited resources, and the Home Front Command has gradually moved into its areas of responsibility.

The fight over who is responsible for what led in 2014 to the breakup of the Home Front Defense Ministry. Since then NEMA has been part of the Defense Ministry, meaning that the defense minister is now responsible for both the Home Front Command and NEMA.

The thinking was that putting both of them under the authority of a single cabinet minister would resolve the spat, but that was naïve. It continued, until about a year ago when the defense minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman, appointed a panel headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Avi Mizrahi to sort out the mess.

Mizrahi came down on the side of the Home Front Command — and all of the responsibility for management of the home front would be given to it, including authority for all civilian matters. In other words, a branch of the Israeli army would henceforth be responsible for the Israel Electric Corporation, the Water Authority and local government and would order them how to manage civilian life on the home front during periods of emergency.

Needless to say, NEMA wasn’t thrilled with the recommendation, which has still not been implemented, in part because Israel has been run by a transitional government since April, when the first of two inconclusive general elections was held.

‘The civilian front is more important’

In the absence of legislative authority and of even a clear decision on management in practice of the home front, the confusion prevailing Tuesday among residents of the Tel Aviv area is just the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned, the Home Front Command has no legal authority to order anyone to do anything. It can only offer guidance.

In addition, the considerations behind the guidance aren’t clear. Was it necessary to advise people in the Tel Aviv area not to go to work (unless they were in essential services) without taking the economic and social implications of the move into consideration? Is the Home Front Command also motivated by military considerations, meaning that it would always tend to be strict in its approach? Is there a civilian official of any kind at the Home Front Command who can provide civilian input on the guidance?

In principle, it’s acceptable to have the Home Front Command consulting with the defense minister — and the prime minister — before issuing guidance. Until the beginning of the week, when Naftali Bennett was appointed defense minister, Benjamin Netanyahu wore both hats. And there are suspicions that Netanyahu is strongly in favor of launching a military campaign and backing it up with the broadest possible defense orders to minimize the damage the move would involve. In the absence of a defined and set hierarchy of authority, it’s not clear if, when the decisions were made, there was anyone acting as a force of restraint of any kind.

A short period of uncertainty and perhaps overreaction when it came to Greater Tel Aviv are a small price to pay. Civil defense experts are concerned about a much heavier price that we are liable to pay in the event of all-out war, when the civilian front would be hit by thousands of missiles due to disarray in civil defense.

“It’s bizarre,’ said Avi Bitzur, who heads the defense and civil defense program at Beit Berl College. “The head of the Home Front Command and the head of NEMA bicker, the chairman of the firefighting committee doesn’t speak to the fire commissioner, there’s no police commissioner, there’s no Prison Service commissioner and the entire civil defense system is being conducted without a legislative framework. It’s been that way for 13 years, and the situation is convenient for everyone — because as long as the situation is nebulous and there’s no legal and set designation of authority, everyone can enjoy the vacuum and continue to issue orders without authority.”

For his part, Brig. Ben. (res.) Meir Elran, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the home front is currently more important than the military front.

“It’s not clear that the army has the capability or desire to issue orders regarding the administration of civilian society. There is doubt over whether the army, as a military entity, can advance cooperation among civilian officials and ensure that they are at the necessary level of preparedness. The question of principle is the extent to which a military entity should provide leadership regarding clearly civilian tasks and be responsible for carrying them out, even if they are related to security.”

Elran cited as an example a scenario in which dozens of local governments sustain damage in an all-out war. Who, he asked, would have the authority to decide which of them gets priority in being helped first? It’s not happenstance, he said, that the essential legislation on civil defense has been delayed for years. He believes that a whole line of defense ministers have been afraid of taking responsibility for civil defense in an all-out war in which there are large numbers of civilian casualties.

The result of this political mess is that the most important front in Israel’s defense is being abandoned, the home front, for which no one is formally and ultimately responsible. Granted that there has been progress in the field of civil defense, and now local governments have expertise in the matter.

The firing of hundreds of missiles at Israel this week poses a moderate risk. What would happen if tens of thousands of missiles rained down on Israel, or if the country suffered a powerful earthquake? No one can answer that. Everyone is evading responsibility.