The Need Was Clear, the Money Available

Israel was supposed to be prepared to endure missile warfare by this past summer, but the surprise drill in the form of the Carmel fire shows it is anything but.

Last Thursday morning, the GOC Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, met with journalists in his office. He sounded quite pleased with the improved deployment of his unit, the police and Magen David Adom in the four years since the Second Lebanon War. What about firefighting ability, he was asked. Israel, the general replied, does not have firefighting ability. It has fire trucks and a few firemen, but there is no real firefighting force that could meet local needs. A few hours later the fire on Mount Carmel broke out.

The state comptroller's harsh report on the firefighting services Wednesday contained little that was news to cabinet ministers and government officials. The shortcomings had already been detailed extensively in the state comptroller's 2007 report, which analyzed the state's failed performance on the home front during the Lebanon war: a dire shortage of firefighters, firefighting vehicles and means, and the complete absence of a central control unit. And here is the summary of the 2009 national home front exercise, codenamed "Turning Point 3": "The firefighting service lacks capabilities and procedures. Improvement is required in the joint work of Home Front Command and the firefighters. The National Emergency Authority and the Interior Ministry need to examine thoroughly the country's firefighting capability."

fire - David Bachar - December 9 2010
David Bachar

Nothing was done. Interior Minister Eli Yishai (who is responsible for the firefighting services ) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who is responsible for the home front in an emergency ) did not meet even once to discuss the subject. Yishai, whose ministry is singled out by the report as bearing primary responsibility for the crisis, complained about the Israeli political system, which he believes accords total control to the "boys of the treasury."

The problem, though, is not necessarily the treasury. If everyone, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the interior and finance ministers, recognized what needed to be done, why was no action taken after the June government decision to increase the firefighting budget?

Civilians will die

The report was scheduled to be published late this month, but State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released it early - on Wednesday, just six days after the fire broke out - and added a sharply worded introduction. The report, drawn up by the security unit in the State Comptroller's Office, headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Orr, is clear, concise and categorical. Orr and Lindenstrauss state plainly that civilians will die in the next war because of the disastrous lack of firefighting capabilities.

The fire on Mount Carmel was a relatively simple scenario compared to what Israel is liable to encounter in a war, when fires break out in a large number of places simultaneously, particularly city centers, as a result of missile attacks. The missile threat, Lindenstrauss writes, has increased significantly since the 2006 war, whereas the Israeli firefighting response capability has decreased.

The timing of this examination is far from accidental. Documents distributed this week by Yishai, as part of his defense, revealed an interesting fact. A working timetable was set for the Israel home front: missile warfare readiness by the summer of 2010. The report, and the surprise test of the services on Mount Carmel, show that regarding firefighting, Israel has failed to meet that goal.

Briefly and politely, the report mentions a May 5 meeting between officials from the comptroller's office and the interior minister. It was only after that meeting that Yishai sounded the alarm. Twenty days later, he brought the proposal before the government to increase the budget. Until the disaster, Shas had planned a political appointment to replace Shimon Romach as fire and rescue commissioner. The fire on Mount Carmel forced Yishai to dissociate himself from his candidate in a live media broadcast and in the same breath called on outgoing senior army officers - "if they hear us" - to submit their candidacies for the position.

The army has insights that go beyond last week's events. The Israeli home front's weak points have been identified by Damascus, Beirut and in Gaza, too. The basic assumption is that broad use will be made of this information in the next round of fighting, in an attempt to inflict serious damage on the Israeli civilian population.

The WikiLeaks documents supplied another significant point. They show that the United States and Israel exerted relentless pressure on Syria not to supply Scud-D missiles to Hezbollah. Damascus took note - and supplied the missiles. The conclusion is that even if Syria fears a war, it is not reluctant to go on building up Hezbollah, even at the price of angering Washington. Similar tension, stemming from an Israeli attempt to disrupt the transfer of advanced antiaircraft missiles from Syria to Lebanon, is liable to spark a war in the north.

An officer in charge of implementing some of the offensive plans in the event of a war said this week that his main conclusion is that the IDF will have to shorten any future confrontation. Pressure on the home front and international opposition to Israeli actions will not allow the army all the time it needs for search-and-destroy of launch areas. As a result, Israel might be obliged to take even more aggressive action, despite the handcuffs constituted by the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead.