Who’s in Charge of the Home Front?

Emergency situations require coordination between a very large number of institutions, but the complexity of this coordination does not justify the failure of all governments over the last two decades to solve the problem.

Reuven Pedatzur
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If missiles launched by Assad land on the home front, don’t be surprised by the disorder, uncertainty, embarrassment, flight from responsibility and total mishandling of the situation by those entrusted to come to our aid in the event of such strikes. When the missiles launched by Saddam Hussein landed here 20 years ago, it quickly became apparent that there was no guiding hand in charge of the home front. It wasn’t clear who was responsible for what, and what the chain of authority was. Things got to the point where fights broke out between firefighters and paramedics, each claiming they had the authority to manage such emergencies.

Lessons from that episode led to the setting up of the Home Front Command, in the hope that it would regulate the spheres of responsibility and authority of those dealing with civilian safety in times of immediate danger. The Second Lebanon War in 2006 demonstrated that 15 years after the problems had surfaced, nothing had changed.

In a severely critical report published after the war, the state comptroller wrote: “The findings detailed in this report show that the governments of Israel, including both political and executive echelons, were derelict in performing their duties of sufficiently preparing the home front. Most public institutions have not prepared for emergencies or discussed how such situations will be handled. They have not conducted themselves according to required procedures and norms. These are serious shortcomings that have gone on for years, seriously degrading the capacity to care for civilians during times of war.”

In January of 2011, Ehud Barak left the Labor party and set up his own Knesset faction, Atzmaut. In order to create a job for Matan Vilnai, who joined his faction, he set up the Home Front Defense Ministry. It’s doubtful if Vilnai managed to learn what his responsibilities and authority were before he left office. Dealing with the home front means looking after civilians, but for years it was assumed that the responsibility for this lies with the (military) defense establishment. This was always the case, going back to the days of the Civil Defense authority. However, the IDF never internalized the need to prepare the home front as well as the army, and repeatedly failed in this mission.

This is a complex issue. Emergency situations require coordination between a very large number of institutions. These include the Defense Ministry and minister, the IDF top command, the IDF’s Home Front Command, the civilian Home Front Defense Ministry, the Internal Security Ministry, the National Emergency Authority, the authority dealing with manpower and the economy during emergencies, the police, firefighters, Magen David Adom (paramedics), local authorities, the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Post Office, which hands out gas masks.

The complexity of coordinating between all these bodies does not justify the failure of all governments over the last two decades to solve the problem. Only last month, the state comptroller published a highly critical report stating that there still is “no comprehensive legal arrangement that centralizes all the handling of affairs related to care for civilians during emergencies, while clarifying the responsibilities and delegation of authority to all involved, determining the reciprocal relations between them.”

The meaning of all this is that during an emergency, the delegation of responsibility and authority between the defense minister, the minister for Home Front Defense and the minister for Internal Security will be unclear. There will be confusion among all the bodies handling the situation, preventing the effective and full use of all the means at their disposal.

It is thus not surprising that 40% of the population have no gas masks, and that no one knows who is in charge of distributing them. What transpired on the home front 20 years ago when Saddam Hussein first fired missiles at Israel will repeat itself if Assad delivers on his threats.