Millions of Israelis, Vital Infrastructure Exposed to Missile Attack, Watchdog Says

Comptroller's report also takes state to task for failing to issue work permits directly to Palestinian workers, who are subject to black market middlemen, despite 2016 to reform system

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A factory in southern Israel hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, November 13, 2019.
A factory in southern Israel hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, November 13, 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman released on Monday a report warning that 2.6 million Israelis lack proper civil defense protection and that the defense establishment spent billions of shekels on an artillery project without proper advance staff work.

In the third part of his office’s annual report, Englman focused primarily on defense. As in prior reports issued by Englman, who took office as state comptroller a year ago, he refrained from pointing a figure at individuals for mismanagement and took pains to also point out positive performance, even though in at least some instances, the praise regarded situations that have only deteriorated since prior reports.

In one main section of the newly released report, Englman noted that about 1.3 million previously classified archival files are off limits to the public despite the fact that their classification as confidential has expired. These documents cover many issues of great public importance, including Israel’s wars, the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre and the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre and Shin Bet involvement of political espionage of Mizrahi protest leaders in the 1950s.

Englman also addressed stalled plans for a new official office and residence for Israel’s prime ministers and described foot-dragging and waste in planning for the project, which is now under a cloud of uncertainty, the estimated cost of which has ballooned from 650 million shekels ($191 million) in initial stages of planning in 2009 to 1.2 billion ($353 million) in 2018.

According to the report, both politicians and members of the military brass are responsible for the lack of civil defense protection. In the chapter on preparations to protect the home front from missile and rocket threats, the report states that they have ignored the serious findings on the subject in a 2016 report by Englman’s immediate predecessor, Joseph Shapira. In many instances, Englman alleged, the situation has only gotten worse since.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at a conference in Jerusalem, February 3, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to the new report, the number of Israelis lacking a proper shelter near their homes rose from 2 million people (26 percent of the population) in 2016 to 2.6 million (28 percent of the population) in 2019. There are 12,601 public shelters in Israel but 20 percent of them would not be fit for use in a missile attack, the report says.

In addition, many public shelters in communities adjacent to the border, where residents might be required to remain in shelters for an extended period, do not provide the necessary physical conditions. The comptroller also stated that the criteria developed by the army’s civil defense unit, the Home Front Command, “do not meet one of more of the conditions set by the army as minimal conditions for an extended stay.”

According to the report, these deficiencies have an impact on more than 50,000 people who live within 9 kilometers (5 and a half miles) of the border, as well as 231,650 people living up to 40 kilometers from the border. Even though similar findings appeared in the 2016 report, the situation remains the same.

When it comes to defense authorities’ plans to evacuate civilians during wartime from areas near the border, the state comptroller warned that this would involve moving 300,000 residents from their homes for an extended period. In the area near the Gaza border, which might be expected to be in the crosshairs of hostilities, arrangements are only available to evacuate and house 75 percent of the area’s population living within 4 kilometers of the border.

The comptroller also found that a plan providing for the evacuation of 25 communities, including the town of Sderot near the Gaza border, has not yet been completed and currently provides for just 23 of them. The delay in completing the plan is the result of disagreements between the Home Front Command and the army’s Northern Command regarding how the residents should be prepared.

The Defense Ministry said in response that in 2016, a draft of legislation on civil defense preparedness was circulated by the defense minister and that since then the Defense Ministry has been working with other government ministries to come to agreement with all those involved on the provisions of the bill.

Referring to the transitional government that was in power during the period of the election stalemate between April of last year and March 2020, the ministry added: “As long as a transitional government was in office, it was not possible to advance the legislative process. Since the installation [in May of the current government], the process has been jumpstarted. The Defense Ministry is currently carrying out the required adjustments in the draft bill to move it forward.”

Less spending at home

According to another part of Englman’s report, the Defense Ministry is set to reduce the scope of its purchases from Israeli defense industries by 5.6 billion shekels a year starting in 2028, due to the terms of the agreement signed with the United States on military aid. This cut is much deeper han previously assessed, and could deliver a harsh blow to Israeli firms.

The report states that since the agreement was signed four years ago, Israel has had four different defense ministers, possibly contributing to a lack of preparation for its effects on the Israeli defense industry. Englman called on the Defense Ministry to conduct a thorough examination of how this drop in spending might affect Israeli firms, the Israel Defense Forces and state security.

The Defense Ministry said in response that it was doing so since 2016, when the agreement was signed.

Essential facilities

In addition to the criticism regarding civil defense preparations, Englman pointed out deficiencies in the protection of essential facilities from missile and rocket attack and other aerial threats, despite what the comptroller said was the estimate of hundreds of thousands of such threats. The Defense Ministry, he said, should prepare now for a growing threat and noted that “although dozens of facilities slated for physical protection are included in a list in the possession of the National Emergency Management Authority, only a small number of those required to be protected and approved by a cabinet committee have been protected.”

“The Defense Ministry has not acted to physically protect essential infrastructure at certain entities,” the report states. “It doesn’t have a work plan to carry out protection as needed and has not prepared a scenario dealing with these entities,” it was noted, and “preparation has been lacking from certain entities” when it comes to protecting essential facilities from aerial attack.

In response to that, the Defense Ministry said: “The State of Israel, in coordination and with the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the National Emergency Management Authority, has made substantial [improvements] in recent years with respect to everything related to preparation to protect essential facilities. That includes a single list of prioritized essential facilities that has been developed for all the players involved in the country. At the same time, actual protection of strategic infrastructure deemed most essential in the functional continuity of the economy during an emergency has been carried out. Currently the implementation of an additional protection plan for essential infrastructure has begun.”

Lack of transparency in artillery procurement

In another section, Englman addresses the Israeli army’s procurement of new artillery. Although the comptroller refrained from stating so directly, the findings reveal an alleged series of problems in the procurement process, involving an estimated billions of shekels.

“[The investigation] found deficiencies in the headquarters [staff] work of the army in examining the acquisition of new artillery as well as deficiencies in presenting the information to the army chief of staff, the defense minister and the security cabinet, which led to decisions based on inadequate information,” the report states.

The security cabinet gave the army approval to buy billions of shekels of artillery equipment produced by the Israel firm Elbit Systems in March 2018. The contract for the development of the equipment was signed with the company a year later, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also serving as defense minister. According to the report, the army, the Defense Ministry and the security cabinet did not work transparently at every stage of the decision-making process, which shut out competitors that might have offered quality solutions at a lower price.

In response, the Defense Ministry said that an army committee had spent many months examining all possible alternatives for the project and that “the committee’s recommendations and their approval was carried out based on all of the rules and the project is proceeding.”

Corruption among permits for Palestinian workers

In his report, Englman also decries the method for issuing Israeli work permits to Palestinians and the yearslong delay in changing it.

He notes that the current method greatly reduces the earning power of Palestinians who work in Israel, hurting them and their families and decreasing the trust of West Bank Palestinians in Israel’s Civil Administration.

Palestinian workers wait to cross the Qalandiyah checkpoint from the West Bank into Israel, June 7, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

According to the report, the number of Palestinians working in Israel rose to 82,000 in 2018, from 47,000 in 2014.

Under the current system, Israeli employers apply for the permits on behalf of Palestinian workers, an arrangement that allows brokers to profit at the workers’ expense. Often, a Palestinian broker will act as a middleman between a group of workers and an Israeli employee, charging each member of the group 2,500-3,000 shekels a month. The average daily wage of Palestinians working in Israel is 200 shekels, according to an estimate by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories that was included in the report. “A large proportion of these workers pays around half [of their salaries] as commission,” the report noted.

In July 2015, an interministerial team was appointed to review the situation. It discovered a lively, illegal trade in permits and in workers, the result of the permit being granted to the employer and not the employee. “The trade in work permits... injures Palestinian workers and harms the public’s trust in the Civil Administration, and could even damage Israel’s construction industry,” the state comptroller wrote about the system.

In August 2016, the team recommended issuing the permits directly to the workers, allowing them to choose, and to switch, employers. It also called for computerizing the application and employment process. In December 2016, the cabinet passed a resolution making July 2017 the deadline for introducing the changes. In January 2018, a second resolution extended the deadline to October of that year. In Monday’s report, Englman called on COGAT and the Civil Administration to accelerate the implementation process.

In a written statement the spokesperson’s unit of the Israel Defense Forces, which includes COGAT and the Civil Administration, said the latter agency was working to implement the model approved by the cabinet, “out of a recognition that it is a big move with great, broad, positive effect on the area of Palestinian employment in Israel.” The statement said implementation would be “a complex process involving a considerable amount of time for preparations and implementation that is dependent, inter alia, on coordination with additional government agencies. We stress that the Civil Administration works unceasingly to implement the model swiftly and has already begun to examine the model in the Atarot Industrial Zone, alongside advance work toward building a special computerized system.”

Noa Landau, Ofer Aderet and Hagai Amit contributed to this report.

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