Shelter From the War? For Israel’s Arabs, Not So Much

Most Israeli civilian casualties from the Gaza conflict have been Bedouin, but the state isn’t solely at fault: Arab local governments don’t invest in civil defense.

Israel Police spokesperson

In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, 44 Israeli civilians were killed, including 19 Arabs. In the current hostilities, three Israeli civilians, including one Bedouin Arab, have died so far. Most of the relatively small number of Israeli civilians who have been seriously injured by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in the current round of fighting have been Bedouin, including two girls who were severely wounded near the Negev Bedouin village of Lakiya.

Although they have not been deliberately targeted, Arabs have suffered disproportionately in recent Israeli wars, as a result of the poor civil defense infrastructure in Israel’s Arab communities.

Research carried out by The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nonprofit organization whose focus is on fostering Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, revealed a strange dichotomy: While more than 90% of schools in Arab communities had bomb shelters, only 9% of Arab communities had public bomb shelters. Although 86% of these communities had a security officer, 54% of the officers did not have a professional background in emergency response. All of Israel’s Arab communities were found to have functioning siren systems.

The split personality when it comes to emergency preparedness appears surprising on the surface, but it can be easily explained. The aspects of civil defense for which these communities are fully prepared — sirens and shelters in schools — are the responsibility of the national government. The Home Front Command of the Israel Defense Forces installs the sirens at its own expense and protection of public institutions is funded massively, sometimes even completely, by the state. But freestanding public shelters are the responsibility of local authorities, which also bear the cost of constructing them.

The national government does in fact help provide professional training for local civil defense officials, but ultimately the officials report to the local authorities, who employ them.

So when it comes to civil defense, the situation in Arab localities mirrors the situation in virtually all other aspects of life there. They lag behind Jewish municipalities and are dependent on funding and assistance from the national government to move things forward. It’s all the product of a number of factors: discrimination by the Jewish majority, severe poverty that prevents local Arab governments from allocating the necessary funding, poor management on the part of the local authorities and cultural disparities.

In addition, national civil defense preparedness is primarily the responsibility of the military, first and foremost the IDF Home Front Command. Though the Home Front Command has good intentions, in many Arab communities in Israel army uniforms are greeted with suspicion — and that’s an additional impediment to bringing civil defense preparedness in these communities up to its level in Jewish towns.

The disparities are unquestionable. Until the Second Lebanon War, the national government didn’t even address the issue of civil defense in Arab locales on the mistaken assumption that they would not be within range of the weapons available to Israel’s hostile Arab neighbors. The large number of Arab Israeli casualties in the Second Lebanon War, in which Hezbollah rained rockets onto northern Israel from Lebanon, revealed the seriousness of the problem. Since then major efforts have been made to deal with the matter, but only with partial success.

Public bomb shelters are not being built because Arab local governments don’t have the money; and due to deficient planning, the bomb shelters in Arab schools can only accommodate about a third of the students on average. Jewish discrimination against Arab communities is reflected in the chronic lack of infrastructure in Arab towns. Only a third of them have a police station or Magen David Adom emergency medical service; only a fifth have a fire department and very few have public clinics that are reinforced against missiles.

In the absence of financial resources, most of the civil defense infrastructure built since 2006 barely functions. Emergency supplies are lacking and information databases are not kept current. Local officials complain that the national government is not doing enough to provide them with the necessary resources, while the state points the blame at local officials, who at least in part are supposed to fend for themselves. But many Arab local authorities don’t have the ability to fend for themselves, due to major financial problems.

Officials at the National Emergency Authority, an agency that was set up after the government drew lessons from the Second Lebanon War, say they provide equally to Arab and Jewish locales, but that ignores the more basic disparities between Jewish and Arab towns, despite equalization payments that are also provided by the state.

The root of the problem dates back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when Arab local authorities failed to invest in building public shelters or requiring private construction of shelters. The problem exists to this day as officials in these communities ignore the need for emergency preparedness, which is also reflected in lack of attention and time to the issue. The Abraham Fund quotes one official as saying that he devotes at most an hour a week to civil defense, but even that appears to him to be excessive. And many of the security officers in Arab communities are appointed due to their extended family connections with local officials rather than their professional qualifications.

This disregard of civil defense needs by local officials even extends to Arab communities that suffered during the Second Lebanon War. It’s the product of an assumption that the communities would not be targeted by Arabs on the other side of the border and are therefore not in harm’s way. It’s also the result of a lack of interest on the part of residents and consequently also of local officials and even a religious belief that fate takes its course.

The long list of day-to-day problems faced by the local governments of Arab communities mean that emergency preparedness is pushed to the side. As a result, it is estimated that only about a third of their engineering departments and only about a fifth of their welfare and education departments are prepared for such emergencies. Overall emergency preparedness is pegged there at just 14% by security officials. This apparently explains why the proportion of Arab-Israeli casualties has exceeded Arabs’ 20% representation in the population. It’s hard to imagine that this will change without a massive amount of aid from the national government.

It should be noted that as the government decided this year to close the Home Front Defense Ministry and fold its operations into the Defense Ministry, the Home Front Defense Ministry produced a civil defense plan that includes the allocation of between 6 billion shekels and 10 billion shekels ($1.8 billion to $2.9 billion) over 10 years for civil defense aid to poorer municipalities. Ironically, the communities that are within the closest range of rocket fire are also for the most part among the country’s poorest, and include mostly but not exclusively Arab communities. If we sit and wait for them to provide the appropriate protection themselves, there is no guarantee that it will ever happen.