Israeli-Arab Towns Woefully Unprotected in Case of Missile Attack, Israeli Army Sources Say

Defense Ministry says it has a plan to resolve problem in northern Israel, which effects Jews and Arabs, but the treasury is refusing to back it

Yaniv Kubovich
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A house hit by a missile in the Israeli village of Arab al-Aramshe, during the Second Lebanon War in June 2006.
A home in the Israeli village of Arab al-Aramshe, hit by a missile during the Second Lebanon War, June 2006. Some 18 Arab Israelis died during the conflict.Credit: Reuters
Yaniv Kubovich

Predominantly Arab towns and cities in northern Israel are seriously lacking protection from missile attacks, say Israeli military sources.

About a third of the people living within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Israel’s northern border, of whom 70 percent are Arab, have no access to bomb shelters. And among people living within 9 kilometers of the border, 60 percent of whom are Arab, some 15 percent are inadequately protected by shelters, the sources say.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed last week that in June 2016 he tried to get 1.5 billion shekels ($428 million) allocated for building shelters over the next decade, but the treasury balked.

“We are trying to push the subject, even though we aren’t responsible for it,” Lieberman told reporters. “I believe that at present we’re talking about a third of the population of the north that has no protection solutions. We are focusing mainly on the Tiberias-Haifa line, that’s what concerns us the most – including Druze, Bedouin, Arabs and Jews.”

Lieberman referred to the problems when he tried to explain why he is seeking another 4.8 billion shekels for the Defense Ministry, even though a 2015 agreement signed between the defense and finance ministries set the defense budget for five years.

Treasury sources said they didn’t know what allocation Lieberman was referring to, and that there is no operational plan to build shelters in the north. A joint Construction and Housing Ministry-Finance Ministry committee is sitting to discuss shelters for the Arab community, treasury sources added.

The shortage of shelters in the Arab communities stems from the outdated assumption that, in the event of a missile attack on Israel, they wouldn’t be targeted. That assumption had to be revised when 18 Arab Israelis died, some from direct missile hits, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Army sources said part of the problem is that household shelters can’t be built in old, unsuitable buildings or in illegally constructed ones. Also, sometimes the Arab residents don’t want a “safe room” (mamad in Hebrew) in their house.

However, according to Arab town mayors and representatives of the Arab leadership, there has been no attempt to prepare a comprehensive plan that would address Israeli Arabs’ protection in times of war.

“As of today, there is no proper shelter in Sakhnin for war or earthquake,” said Mayor Mazen Gnaim. Sakhnin is one of northern Israel’s largest Arab cities.

“The Home Front Command” – which is responsible for the Israeli public’s safety in wartime – “brings us generators or all sorts of things that are supposed to help, but we don’t have any real ability to protect ourselves during the next war. If Lieberman really wants to help, let him come here and talk with us. In smaller towns, there aren’t even emergency committees,” Gnaim said.

Deir al-Asad Regional Council head Ahmed Dabah agreed that his Galilee town is unprepared for war. “We lack protection not only in the homes but also in schools,” he warned. “There are schools where one classroom that could hold a few dozen children was strengthened, but hundreds of other students and the teachers would have to race to shelters in the area.”

The Israel Defense Forces spokesman responded that the “Home Front Command and the defense minister are working within their authority to reduce the protection gaps in the entire population, including the Arab population. In the short term, a plan funded by the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry costing tens of millions of shekels is being implemented to improve the readiness of public shelters in the north. Its intention is to bring about a marked improvement in the condition of the shelters up to 9 kilometers from the border within the coming year. This plan includes Arab towns as well.”

The Defense Ministry responded that, based on a cabinet resolution on home front protection, a 10-year plan costing 1.5 billion shekels had been devised regarding shelters in the north for Jews and Arabs, but the plan had been stymied by the Finance Ministry. The Housing Ministry said that in contrast to any counter claims, the plan is ready for execution and awaits merely a budget agreement between the finance and defense ministries.