Millions of Israelis Exposed to Rocket Threat, Army Lacks 'Adequate Response Capabilities,' Watchdog Says

Comptroller report cites lack of cabinet discussion on ways to defend against rocket attacks, paucity of safe bomb shelters.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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An Iron Dome anti-rocket defense battery in action near the Gaza Strip.
An Iron Dome anti-rocket defense battery in action near the Gaza Strip.Credit: AFP
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published a report examining the degree to which Israeli authorities have protected the civilian population against attacks by rockets and missiles. The comptroller’s investigation – launched immediately following Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and concluding at the end of 2015 – revealed that until this past June, the security cabinet did not conduct even a single discussion on these subjects.

Specifically, the report addresses physical means for ensuring the safety of citizens, such as shelters and protected spaces; deployment of systems that detect and warn against incoming rockets; and the means available for evacuating the population under such threats.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that even though the security cabinet did not talk about plans for defending the home front, it did discuss the attack strategy of the Israel Defense Forces and what is termed “active defense” – i.e., use of the Iron Dome and other interception systems.

But Shapira writes in his report that, "we must view with severity the fact that the [security] cabinet did not discuss the issue of protection, detection, warning and evacuation of the population.”

Although the IDF has envisioned a scenario in which there will be attacks on the country by thousands – or even tens of thousands – of missiles and rockets, it is doubtful whether the military has adequate response capabilities that would defend the country properly under such conditions, the comptroller says.

Among other criticism, Shapira cites the involvement of the political leadership in protecting the civilian home front. After the Home Front Defense Ministry was closed down in June 2014, its responsibilities were transferred to the Defense Ministry, which was tasked with preparing such plans for the population. The original deadline for the defense minister to present these plans was November 1, 2014, but it was postponed, and as of this past July, the presentation had still not taken place.

Defective shelters

The state comptroller’s investigation also revealed that some two million Israelis have no protection from bomb shelters in the event of missile or rocket attacks.

The IDF’s Home Front Command calculated in 2012 that 27 percent of Israelis – more than 2 million – remain without such protection. But Shapira found that those estimates included shelters that are not in usable or proper condition, so in reality the number of unprotected civilians is much higher.

The Home Front Command’s most up-to-date data, for 2015, show that 16 percent of all public bomb shelters are not fit for use, while an additional 33 percent barely meet the minimal criteria. This means that another 200,000 people do not have proper, or adequate, protection in such structures.

In the new report, Shapira's staff took special interest in the state of the shelters in the north: In 2014, the Home Front Command stated that half of the households on the Golan Heights – and 32 percent of all Israeli households located within 15 kilometers of the Lebanese border – did not have protective structures of any kind.

In June 2015, Bezalel Treiber, the head of the National Emergency Management Authority, decided to establish an administrative unit to address this predicament, but this had not happened by the time the comptroller concluded his investigation at the end of last year.

In response to Shapira's findings about the lack of bomb shelters, the IDF said the Home Front Command is currently involved in mapping the location of shelters around the country; some 85 percent of the mapping is done and the process will be complete in August 2017.

As to the comptroller's description of large numbers of faulty shelters and other protective spaces, the IDF responded that responsibility for this problem devolves primarily on local governments.

The new report also found that Bedouin communities in the Negev in southern Israel, where some 200,000 people reside in temporary and rickety structures, lack protection altogether.

The government response to the situation in both the north and the south is that the law stipulates that responsibility for protective rooms and shelters lies with the citizens themselves. In practice, however, the cost of building such a protective room in a private dwelling is about 100,000 shekels ($26,000), a sum that many citizens simply cannot afford.

The problem is compiled in Bedouin communities – especially the so-called unrecognized ones – by the fact that the populace has no way of receiving building permits, so even if responsibility for protective spaces is on their shoulders, there is no way to carry out construction, comptroller Shapira notes.

Faulty warning systems

Shapira's report also found that the IDF did not provide the early warnings it promised during Operation Protective Edge to the communities near the Gaza Strip: Residents did not even have the 15 seconds of warning in advance that would have allowed them to reach the protected areas in their own homes. Since then the military has improved its attack-detection capabilities by installing radar systems along the border, but as of the end of 2015 only some of them were fully functional.

In response to the comptroller's new report on this subject, the IDF said that the Israel Air Force is at present involved in widespread efforts to improve the speed and efficacy of early detection and warning systems that will help communities near Gaza as well as along the country's northern border.

The IAF has said, however, that such systems are not capable of detecting a large proportion of attacks by short-range weapons that may in future be aimed at communities near the northern border; many residents will have no warning at all under such circumstances.

The report also found that the sirens that sound the warnings run on batteries with limited supply. The comptroller found that funds earmarked to provide solutions to this and related problems were never transferred to the Home Front Command by the Finance Ministry.

Shapira also revealed that the IDF and several government ministries had yet to complete their part of the national plan for evacuation of citizens, intended to cover some 300,000 individuals. The IDF has prepared its own independent plan for evacuating up to 80,000 civilians along the border, but it did not include the evacuation of cities.

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