When Rocket Sirens Sound, Most Israeli Have Nowhere to Go

Israel privatized the business of building and maintaining reinforced rooms,but much of the country has no place to go in time of war.

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A wedding held in a bomb shelter.
A wedding held in a bomb shelter.Credit: AFP

“In any future war, three branches will be activated immediately: the Israel Air Force, Military Intelligence and the Home Front Command. The main problem will be the Home Front Command, since its soldiers are civilians. This requires special preparedness.”

This is how Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai, a former deputy defense minister and the first minister of home front defense sees the next war. The exceptional vulnerability of Israel’s home front, presumably the main theater in any future conflict, means the ministry has to rethink its organization and operation, he says.

Part of this conceptual overhaul has already taken place, as is evident in the efficient operation of systems to protect the civilian population in Operation Protective Edge and more is going to happen in the future (see story on page 7). A deep conceptual change has also taken place at the highest levels.

The situation today is a far cry from where it was during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, after which an investigation by the State Comptroller’s Office found that successive governments had never even discussed how to protect the home front. Since then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Olmert devoted much of their time and billions of shekels to protecting civilians. At least once a month Netanyahu himself holds a meeting on the issue, with many participants.

“The prime minister is personally involved in home front preparedness,” says Brig. Gen. Ze’ev Zuk-Ram, who is in charge of home front defense in Israel’s National Security Council (another lesson from 2006 was the creation of this department in the NSC).

Netanyahu has set aside significant funding and has addressed the issue of protecting infrastructure to ensure it doesn’t fail in times of emergency. Last year he made the groundbreaking decision to allocate funds to reinforce institutions for people with disabilities,Zuk-Ram.

It is not by chance that Zuk-Ram emphasizes Netanyahu’s involvement in funding the protection of civil infrastructure and sensitive educational institutions. It’s common knowledge that the weak point in home front defense is physical protection. If Vilnai views civilians as the home front’s soldiers, then Israel is sending many of its soldiers into battle exposed to enemy fire.

Two components

Home front defense has two components, the first of which is reinforcing public structures, especially infrastructure. As a result of decades of neglect, most of Israel’s infrastructure is unprotected, risking our access to water, power, medical services and communications in time of war. Not until the Second Lebanon War did Israel realize the problem, but since then it has made rapidly progress in addressing in.

The second component is the physical protection of the public, which in contrast to the physical protection of national resources has been privatized, making it susceptible to market forces.

After independence, construction of public shelters was entrusted to local governments, with little in the way of supervison or enforcement. In 1972, the burden was shifted to private developers. Until 1992, every new apartment building had to have a common shelter — or in high-rise buildings —a protected room on each floor. In 1992, the directives were changed to require a reinforced room in every home.

Now, 23 years later, this rule is universally acclaimed. The Second Lebanon war and Protective Edge have proved the efficacy of these rooms in saving lives. They are accessible, well-maintained and permit people to maintain their daily routine. They also afford protection against earthquakes. The problem is that the directive applies only to buildings built since 1992.

Neglected and inaccessible

Data collected by the Home Front Defense Ministry show that since 1992, 705,000 apartments, housing 2.5 million people, have been built with secure rooms. Another 2.9 million people live in apartment buildings constructed between 1972 and 1992 with a communal shelter. The ministry’s assumption was that these people are protected, despite the fact that the 2006 Lebanon war demonstrated that many of the communal shelters are in disarray, some even taken over by squatters.

In any case, these 2.9 million people are still in relatively good shape, compared to people living in apartment buildings dating from before 1972. Around 426,000 people living in 122,000 such apartments are dependent on nearby public shelters, which may be too far to reach in the event of an air attack or not properly maintained.

An additional 2.1 million people, in 600,000 homes or apartments, lack even this minimal protection. They have no shelter whatsoever. Most of them live in older or Arab towns, which over the years did not enforce the directives for constructing public shelters. For them, there is only National Master Plan (Tama) 38, which gives financial incentives for reinforcing older buildings by private contractors. It takes the form of building secure rooms or tearing down and rebuilding entire structures. It is designed as an urban renewal program in which older apartment buildings are fortified against earthquakes and rockets or missiles. The incentive for contractors is building rights for additional floors are built on top of existing buildings.

The thinking was that financial incentives would result in new neighborhoods replacing older ones, or in the renovation and strengthening of older houses, with a substantial improvement in residents’ security and quality of life.

The concept was great; the only hitch was that it didn’t work.

An analysis by the Home Front Ministry presented to Netanyahu six months ago details the impediments to success. Some 810,000 apartments in 40,000 buildings dating from before the 1980s need earthquake reinforcement. Since 2005, when Tama 38 was introduced, only 1,650 permits, out of just 2,450 applications, have been issued under the guidelines — a fraction of the real need.

The ministry estimated that even if some barriers were removed, by 2033 only 92,000 apartments — less than one-eighth of the number requiring protection — would be improved in accordance with the master plan.

A breakdown of the 600,000 to 800,000 unprotected apartments by the socioeconomic status of their residents shows that 217,000 are in Israel’s poorest communities and just 62,000 are in the wealthiest communities. The financial incentives of Tama 38 don’t work in poorer communities; the value of the apartments does not justify the cost of the renovation. Thus, this plan does not help people in Israel’s geographical periphery, where most of the units needing protection are located.

“There is a serious problem with regard to providing shelter, and not much is being done,” admits a very senior figure in home front defense, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The government offered the instrument of Tama 38, but it appears to be relevant only to affluent people in central Israel, where the price of land makes the investment worthwhile. Millions of people living in the periphery, where land is cheaper, remain without protection. No one is offering them an alternative. The result is that even with regard to protection there are unacceptable social gaps – the rich get state help and manage while the poor remain exposed.”

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