Inspectors Begin Weighing War Damage

Pillar of Defense lasted eight days, but assessors and engineers will be working much longer on claims for compensation. TheMarker watches them at work.

In a penthouse apartment astride Ashdod's marina, Audrey Abecassis, 22, a third-year student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, is explaining the damage to her home in her French-accented Hebrew to a team of property tax inspectors.

Her father Gabriel, who was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, is standing by her side and adds comments here and there in French. When Operation Pillar of Defense began nearly two weeks ago, he flew immediately to Israel, less out of concern for his apartment and more for his daughter. A Grad rocket hit the apartment's roof.

"She was lucky to be in Herzliya at the time, otherwise it would have been a disaster," he says.

The penthouse windows provide a beautiful panorama of the Ashdod beach, but inside the view is less attractive. The ceiling has fallen several centimeters into the living room, the walls are damp and the kitchen and some furniture have been damaged.

Madar Otniel, a civil engineer who works freelance for the Property Tax Authority, explains that he plans to order ythe ceiling in the living room and one of the bedrooms taken down, as well as the wall dividing them. They'll need to be rebuilt.

That will take two to three months, during which Audrey will receive NIS 4,000 a month to cover her rent while she takes a temporary apartment. She has asked the state to cover her father's hotel stay while he is here and Otniel consents to the request.

Most of the damage happened at the 10-story building when a missile hit on November 18. That includes the elevator shaft, especially the control room, which took a direct hit.

Water damage

"When the rocket struck, the two elevators dropped down the shaft and crashed at the bottom," Otniel says. "Also the main water tank was damaged and all the upper apartments were flooded. In fact, water to the entire building was cut off."

He said that immediately after the rocket hit, the Property Tax Authority called him in to get water supply back to the building as soon as possible. Otherwise, the government would have had to pay the hotel bill for the building's 70 families at a cost of tens of thousands of shekels a day.

"That's a lot of money that the state doesn't want to put out if it can avoid it," Otniel says. "I called a plumbing contractor and told him to do whatever was needed to finish the work by nighttime. They worked all day, into the evening, and by 11 P.M. the building was reconnected to the water supply."

Even without evacuating the residents, the damage is likely to reach NIS 500,000 to NIS 700,000. And that’s only one of around 2,000 claims that have been filed in the south since the start of Pillar of Defense, says Benny Deri, who heads the Property Tax Authority in the south.

“In Cast Lead, we had 2,400 files opened over three weeks. And now, after just eight days, we’ve had the same number of claims,” he says. “Yet most of the rockets aimed at urban areas were intercepted by Iron Dome. I’m afraid to think what would have been without it.”

People whose homes were damaged by rockets have two options. In the first, the state takes full responsibility for fixing any structural damage via the Property Tax Authority’s Amigur contracting company. The second is to privately contract to have the work done, with the authority paying compensation later based on a fixed price list.

Who does the repairs?

In cases of direct damage, Deri recommends the first option. “If the damage is serious, we will even require that we perform the work,” he says. “You can never know about the contractors that homeowners hire and whether they decide to save money at the expense of the building’s structure.”

In the penthouse next door to Aboksis, workers are painting over cracks and other damage to the walls, although it’s not clear that all the repairs they are making are rocket-related. Deri takes these issues in stride, saying people naturally overlook cracks and other things that need repair, so that when a rocket hits they ascribe everything to the war.

“My approach is if we’re talking about cracks, where the cost of repairs is marginal, it’s worth it to fix those as well and be done with it,” Otniel says.

“What worries me the most right now is future claims by neighbors because of damage that you can’t notice right now.”

The next stop for the inspectors is Ahva, a small settlement in the Be’er Tuvia Regional Council. Their faces show how much they already miss the pleasant and well-mannered discussions they had in Ashdod.

In the apartment of a woman who asked to be identified only as Ludmila, a schoolteacher in Ashdod, the workers she contracted privately are already repairing damage from a Grad that fell into the building’s courtyard.

In contrast to the Aboksis family, she chides Otniel for his failing to recognize the damage to her apartment from his previous visit, including scratches to her metallic-colored Sharp refrigerator.

“I plan to buy a new refrigerator,” she tells Otniel. “It was new before it was damaged and it has to be new again.” Otniel offers to compensate her NIS 750 for the damage, a proposal she rejects out of hand. Her list of damage for which she wants compensation also includes a closet hit by Grad pellets, a sofa and marble kitchen-cabinet counters.

Otniel got into the compensation business during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and has since dealt with hundreds of claims. Often enough he gets the blunt end of people’s gripes about the state’s failure to compensate them to the extent they think they deserve. But almost none of the appeals end up in court, he says. Usually the exaggerated claims are designed to squeeze a little more money out the government.

Like wnning the lottery

“Some people think that if their house is damaged, it’s like winning the lottery. We have a private house in Moshav Timorim that took a direct hit,” Otniel says.

“The owner is a nice-enough guy; it’s just that he insists he has to build a new house from scratch. With all due respect, only one room was damaged. A demand like that has no basis.” Otneil says.

Another story involves a lawyer who’s a member of the Likud Central Committee and close to the corridors of power. The damage to his home in Safed was assessed in the Second Lebanon War, but the lawyer wasn’t satisfied and to this day Otniel has been deluged with messages from public figures ? ministers on down ? asking him to deal with the situation.

The visits end with the Ashdod Cultural Center, which was damaged during the fighting. It’s relatively light: Seven large plate-glass windows, though each will cost several thousand shekels to replace. At this point Otniel, Deri and the rest of the team disperse to their offices.

“It’s only the start of the process,” says Deri. “This operation will be giving us a lot of work in the months and years ahead.”