When Home Becomes the Front

The lesson of the second Lebanon war, MK Ami Ayalon (Labor) says, is that there is no longer a military front and a home front. It's all one front.

First place on the negative list of behavior in regard to the civilian home front in the Lebanon war last year goes, in my opinion, to the local governments. True, there were some local governments, particularly the regional authorities, the Arab and Druze localities, and the Acre Municipality, which functioned properly, but many other local governments in the North were badly managed. Most of the public-sector employees fled and forsook the weak and the elderly.

Responsibility for building public bomb shelters and for maintaining them in periods of calm devolves to the local governments and not the Home Front Command of the Israel Defense Forces. During shelling or rocket fire, when it is impossible to leave the shelter to obtain food and medicine, responsibility is primarily that of the local government. Many public-sector employees, including senior officials, left Safed during the war, but volunteer organizations, including prisoners who volunteered to assist in distributing food to shelters, came to the city.

The public, too, deserves criticism. On the one hand, it has produced exemplary volunteers, and residents of the more distant home front helped by making donations to the weak population groups in the localities under attack. But at the same time there was also public passivity. There were complaints about shelters that were neglected, b ut no readiness to deal with them. The complainants expected others to do the work for them. More alert public activity might have been expected from the young and the healthy.

There is a basic misunderstanding about the organization of the home front. It is a mistake to think that all the responsibility lies with Home Front Command. In addition to the Prime Minister's Office, seven other ministries also bear responsibility for managing the civilian front in wartime. The rescue organizations function under various ministries. Apart from the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry, the Ministries of Health, Interior and Social Affairs have important functions. The Social Affairs Ministry, for example, did not know in which shelters the elderly and the disabled were located. If a decision to evacuate had been made, it would have been extremely difficult to implement it.

In the government, as in the IDF General Staff, there were ministers who did not understand the strategic implications of the fact that the civilian population was under attack. The Prime Minister's Office opposed the declaration of an emergency economy. The official in charge of the emergency economy, Arnon Ben Ami, consented to its non-implementation on condition that the Special Situation in the Home Front Law be invoked, a law under which officials can be ordered to remain on duty and various services provided. Some cabinet ministers objected to this as well.

In the IDF a puzzling division exists between Northern Command, which deals with communities located up to nine kilometers from the border, and Home Front Command, which was not permitted to operate in Kiryat Shmona. Ben Ami argues that in wartime the civilian sector should rely less on the army. The thrust of the treasury during the war and before it, too, was aimed mainly at slashing budgets for the home front.

In December 2006, the new deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, was placed in charge of coordinating the home front. Sneh says he found catastrophic gaps in the preparation of the civilian sector for war. "As of today, we have improved only in organizing for a possible war," he says today.

The Defense Ministry's assessment was that NIS 1.4 billion would be needed to close the gaps. The defense establishment asked the prime minister to allocate NIS 390 million for the home front throughout the country, but was given only NIS 63 million, of which NIS 30 million will not be available until next year. After the size of the allocation was decided, it was reported that MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), the chairman of the regional council of the "Gaza envelope," and five other MKs stated they would vote against the budget. Their pressure was effective: Hermesh was promised another NIS 300 million for the protection of the communities around the Gaza Strip.

The struggle to prepare the home front goes beyond the argument between the state comptroller and the prime minister. MK Ami Ayalon (Labor), who headed a subcommittee of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the home front, is calling for the establishment of a special ministerial committee on the subject. The lesson of the second Lebanon war, he says, is that there is no longer a military front and a home front. It's all one front.