Wanted: A 'Society for Protection From Nature'

Infighting and a lack of coordination are undermining preparations by Israel's army, defense and emergency authorities for dealing with a major catastrophe

Nissim Ben Sheetrit, a young administrative officer in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, was sent for a few days to Mexico City in the late summer of 1985, to set up a communications station in the embassy there. At 7:19 A.M. on September 9, he woke up in his hotel room from an earthquake that registered 8.1 on the Richter scale. He fled outside, into the destruction in the streets. Over 400 buildings in the Mexican capital eventually collapsed in two days of quakes, whose epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean, about 350 kilometers away. Over 10,000 people were killed, most of them in the capital.

Eventually Ben Sheetrit became the deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry. In September 2007 he arrived in Tokyo, where he has been serving as Israel's ambassador. Two Fridays ago, the Japan Institute of International Affairs , convened foreign ambassadors, including Ben Sheetrit's Egyptian colleague, Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser, and other guests for a conference about the recent political upheavals in the Middle East. The event took place in the luxurious Hotel Okura, opposite the U.S. Embassy. The Okura chain takes pride in its charity work, and only two weeks previously had asked guests to contribute to victims of the earthquake in New Zealand.

Japan radiation - AP - 25.3.11

At about 2:45 P.M. a local expert approached the dais and began his lecture: "The Middle East is undergoing an earthquake," he said. And at that very moment, at 2:46 P.M., the earth shook. The audience scattered and security guards rushed Ben Sheetrit outside to the street. From there, they drove 20 minutes to the Israeli Embassy. It's a four-story building, and adjacent to it is the three-story ambassador's residence.

Not a single building in Tokyo was damaged in the major earthquake of March 11, 2011. On March 10, 1945, during World War II, when 330 American bombers destroyed about a quarter of a million buildings with firebombs (about 25 percent of all buildings in the city) and there were some 100,000 fatalities, more than were initially killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atom bombs.

The Japanese, with their usual thoroughness, switched to building with steel, glass and concrete years ago. Their adherence to strict building regulations paid off, but the protection against tsunamis proved less successful. Japan's advantage over Mexico or Haiti, in terms of the balance of progress versus backwardness, proved nonexistent on this front.

Japan's failure to protect itself from a mega-tsunami and disaster with its nuclear reactors offer a lesson that should erase any arrogant smiles from the faces of the members of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission.

On the commission's Hebrew website there is a list of nine statements that are supposed to prove that the Israeli research reactors (Dimona and Nahal Soreq ) can withstand possible earthquake damage. The reactor in Dimona, for example, was built "at a reasonable distance from any community in the Negev, and according to that same principle, no communities were built in proximity to it." The most forceful claims on the site assert that "in the entire history of operating nuclear reactors in the world, earthquakes have not caused damage that led to the destruction of a reactor or to the emission of radioactive material from it ... The licensing of reactors is designed to prevent in advance the construction of a reactor in proximity to sources of earthquakes. Any attempt to compare the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the Israeli research reactors, which are smaller in size and capacity, is particularly absurd and infuriating. Moreover, the Chernobyl accident happened as a result of human error and not due to an earthquake."

The website has not been updated since the Japanese catastrophe. But if problems could arise there, in a country of orderliness and regulations, how much more likely it is that they could happen here.

'Internal' lessons

In 2009 a team from the Israel National Emergency Authority (known by its Hebrew acronym, Rachel ) - led by Shaltiel Lavi, the head of the unit of civilian systems and infrastructure - visited Japan. The current director of Rachel, Ze'ev Tzuk-Ram, visited Japan following the previous large earthquake, in Kobe in 1995, when he was still head of the Operations Branch of the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command.

In both cases the Israeli visitors learned important professional lessons regarding earthquake responses in Japan, but the most important one was "internal": Rachel is incapable of "protecting" itself from one of the most important elements with which it is supposed to coordinate its work: the Home Front Command. The result is that the "Society for Protection from Nature," which Israel badly needs, has yet to be established.

The Home Front Command is subordinate to two masters at the same time: the defense minister and the chief of staff. Even when a dispute between the two is institutional (Defense Minister Amir Peretz versus Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Lebanon 2006 ) rather than personal (Defense Minister Ehud Barak versus Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi ), the chain of command ranges from crooked to broken. The defense minister is too busy and delegates his powers to his deputy, in the case of Barak, first to Ephraim Sneh and later to Matan Vilnai.

With the establishment of the Ministry for Home Front Defense, headed by Vilnai but within the Defense Ministry, a legal problem has arisen: A minister (Barak ) cannot permanently delegate his powers to another minister (Vilnai ). The result is that the power of the GOC Home Front Command is augmented. The present one, Yair Golan, will be appointed to head the Northern Command this summer. And he and Tzuk-Ram don't see eye to eye.

Tzuk-Ram is a brigadier general in the reserves (Vilnai and Golan are both majors general), and he has served in what is regarded as the IDF's "secondary" systems: anti-aircraft and the Home Front Command. By contrast, Vilnai and Golan are paratroopers, each of them among the most prominent in his generation. The deputy chief of staff who returned from the reserves, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, is a friend of Tzuk-Ram. As a civilian, and as former GOC Home Front Command, Naveh wrote studies for Rachel. In wartime we can assume that the deputy chief of staff will deal with the home front while the chief of staff is preoccupied with the front.

Tzuk-Ram and Golan have clashed on various issues, one of them regarding the radio network by which all security and rescue groups will communicate in an emergency; on that matter the IDF communications and computer directorate tended to favor working with Rachel. When it comes to a second issue - that of which entity will work vis-a-vis local authorities - the law entrusted Rachel with this role, but the Home Front Command prefers to assume responsibility for it. Vilnai wanted to solve the problem by ousting Tzuk-Ram and appointing a new head of Rachel, who would also be the director general of the Ministry for Home Front Defense. Although the ouster was blocked in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Shaul Mofaz, Tzuk-Ram decided to resign in August - after the annual Turning Point exercise, which simulates an attack on a chemical plant.

Managerial machinations

The maneuverings, war games and managerial machinations at Rachel, the Home Front Command, the police and the local authorities are all aimed at dealing with a sudden, multiple-casualty incident, which would in essence be distilled into a few dozen seconds of major disaster followed by long days and weeks of evacuation and rehabilitation. It would necessitate caring for tens of thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of homeless. The different players are also trying to prepare for dealing with an emission of nuclear pollution from a ship or a facility on land. Coping with the most serious nuclear disasters is, however, the exclusive province of the Atomic Energy Commission and the so-called "special means division" of the Defense Ministry, and their work is clandestine.

In recent years, experts dealing with one earthquake scenario spoke of 16,000 dead. In another one, which was predicated on a temblor (of 7 on the Richter scale ) with an epicenter in southern Lebanon and serious damage along the Haifa-Afula-Tiberias axis, they estimated some 2,400 dead. Five facilities for storing the bodies of casualties of a mass disaster are supposed to be constructed, each with space for up to 1,500 corpses, which will be "refrigerated and not frozen." Looting is expected.

There is a fear, however, that local and national government systems will not be sufficiently coordinated in their efforts. The establishment of the new Fire and Rescue Services, headed by Maj. Gen. Shahar Ayalon, within the Internal Security Ministry, seems like an opportunity to merge all elements together under a single ministerial wing. But the IDF is in no rush to give up the role of the Home Front Command, or to subsume it within the Defense Ministry like other quasi-military departments, such as the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, and the ministry's defense research and development directorate.

The problems in the local natural-disaster scenarios include some that are unknown in Japan. For example, Palestinians are liable to flood in to Israel from the territories, because the separation fence will doubtless collapse and the army will be busy with emergency-related tasks. Also, the food to be stored in every population-assistance site, to be distributed at a "subsistence level - 800 to 1,200 calories per day per person," will be kosher only.

However, should there be a natural catastrophe, according to Yair Golan, who gave a lecture on the subject at the University of Haifa, "there is no reason for panic." Based also on Israel's experience with Iraqi missiles in the 1991 Gulf War, he posited that, "The behavior of people, as individuals, is not inferior to that of the decision makers on the national level. There will be tough moments, the suffering may be substantial, but there's a tremendous distance between that and losing our heads, losing control and failing to function."

Ramot's stars

"A school has to have a special spirit and in my view music plays a major role in creating it," says Devorah Kehat, principal of the Ramot High School in Bat Yam.

"Music strengthens the children, and when there is a music course in school, more children can benefit. The morning after the concert, the children who attend the music program were the stars at school: Everybody encouraged and praised them, and they became a few centimeters taller. It is a wonderful feeling for children who have difficulties in mathematics, for example, to see their classmates applaud in their honor."

Why have you chosen music as a field of specialization for the school?

Kehat: "My mother is a Holocaust survivor, and when it came to music, she invested a lot in me. My parents took me to concerts and operas, and gave me piano lessons. Music has accompanied me all my life. I dream that the children who graduate from this school can look at life with hope as if they have attended schools in Savyon, Kfar Shmaryahu or northern Tel Aviv. Music is an important part of this. Aline is also a dreamer who knows how to make such dreams come true."

"With Aline we study Schenker's method of analysis, harmony piano-side, counterpoint, and other topics related to musical theory," says Elisha Kravitz, a 12th grader from Jerusalem who started taking piano lessons when he was 5, and is in Gabay's class of gifted pianists at the Jerusalem Music Center. "It interests me personally because I am curious and want to see how the music works, and as Murray Perahia says, a theoretical understanding helps performance."

What is Aline Gabay's role in all this?

Kravitz: "We're fortunate to have Aline because she is young and understands us. It is very important to learn theory. Usually, players consider that a waste of time because they prefer to make music. Aline proves to us how important it is."