Comptroller: Israel woefully unprepared for rocket onslaught
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Comptroller: Israel woefully unprepared for rocket onslaught

In scathing report documenting government's myriad failings for future war, Yosef Shapira says up to 50% of Israelis lack proper bomb shelter

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Students run by a bomb shelter in an elementary school in the coastal city of Ashkelon (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Students run by a bomb shelter in an elementary school in the coastal city of Ashkelon (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Between a quarter and half of all Israelis may not have access to a proper bomb shelter in the case of an emergency, despite the understanding that thousands of rockets would strike Israel in a future war, according to a damning report released Tuesday by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira.

The document, a review of Israel’s preparedness against rocket and missile attacks, found numerous gaps and failures in government and military plans to protect the civilian population, which could result in unnecessary risk to human lives and could hamper the army’s ability to wage war as necessary, Shapira wrote.

The comptroller’s figures for Israelis without access to proper bomb shelters come from 2012, the last time such a survey was conducted by the IDF’s Home Front Command, which showed that at the time more than two million Israelis lacked protection against rockets.

There was no indication of how many people may have gained access since then, but there have been no major programs to supply them.

This report, which deals with the country’s current state of preparedness for the missile threat, is not to be confused with an upcoming comptroller report on the government’s failures during the 2014 Gaza war, which will apparently be released later this month.

A similar report released last year also noted shortcomings in the country’s defense of the home front.

“Though in recent years, great strides have been made in the area of preparedness and defending the civilian home front, in this review some disparities, some of them serious, came up,” Shapira said in his report.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira attends the presentation of the State Comptroller's report in the Knesset on November 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira attends the presentation of the State Comptroller’s report in the Knesset on November 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“These gaps are especially large in the communities on the northern border in general and in the northern cities in particular, which are expected to be under regular and incessant fire,” the comptroller added.

According to the army, some 230,000 rockets of various sizes and warhead capacities are currently aimed toward Israel from a host of enemies.

“If in the Second Lebanon War the record was 160 rockets in a day [fired] at the northern region, we need to expect up to 1,200 rockets in a day — it will be a completely different scenario from anything we’ve known,” Maj. Gen. (res) Yitzhak Gershon, who headed the Home Front Command during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, said in an Army Radio interview this summer.

The 65-page report released Tuesday documents a whole host of gaps in Israel’s preparedness for such an attack, including the ongoing failure by government ministries to formalize areas of responsibility during an emergency, as well as incomplete evacuation plans.

Israeli youth build a bonfire next to a bomb shelter during preparations to celebrate their bar mitzvah, in Kibbutz Beeri, southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip, June 23, 2015 (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli youth build a bonfire next to a bomb shelter during preparations to celebrate their bar mitzvah, in Kibbutz Beeri, southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip, June 23, 2015 (Oded Balilty/AP)

However, Shapira’s harshest criticism is levied at the gap between the number of bomb shelters — public and private — that Israel has and the number that it actually needs.

According to some experts, Israel has typically relied upon its offensive and active defense capabilities to quickly neutralize threats, instead of building up its fortifications and preparing for attack. The Iron Dome anti-missile defense system and Israel’s assorted missile defense batteries are testaments to that mindset, allowing the country to wage war without being worried about its home front.

Shapira’s report questions whether that will be enough, as the IDF anticipates potentially massive rocket fire and attempts to infiltrate Israeli communities during future conflicts with Hamas or Hezbollah.

Not enough bomb shelters

The exact percentage of Israelis without access to proper bomb shelters is open to some level of debate. According to the IDF’s Home Front Command, 27% of the country — or just over two million people — do not have “up to standard” protection against incoming rockets.

However, the Interior Ministry puts that figure substantially higher, at approximately 50%, in accordance with its definition of what constitutes a “proper” bomb shelter.

Thai foreign workers standing in a mobile bomb shelter at Moshav Beit HaGadi in the Southern Israel on August 20, 2014. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
Thai foreign workers standing in a mobile bomb shelter at Moshav Beit HaGadi in the Southern Israel on August 20, 2014. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

The ministry now demands a minimum of 54 square feet (5 square meters) per person in a bomb shelter, as opposed to the 21.5 square feet (2 square meters) required in the past. This change was made in light of the belief that civilians may be forced to spend long periods of time in their bomb shelters, which in turn would necessitate additional room. This requirement meant that some 23% of shared, private bomb shelters, such as the ones found in apartment buildings, were no longer considered fully functional.

In Israel’s northern region, the site of a potential conflict with the heavily armed Hezbollah terrorist group, a larger percentage of civilians — some 32% — do not have access to a proper bomb shelter than in the rest of Israel, the IDF told Shapira.

The comptroller found deficiencies in the south as well, noting that not all the schools in a 9-mile (15-kilometer) radius of the Gaza Strip were protected against rocket attacks, despite being required to be by law.

Olga, an immigrant from the former USSR, watches the news in the bomb shelter she made into a temporary home, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on July 30, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Olga, an immigrant from the former USSR, watches the news in the bomb shelter she made into a temporary home, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on July 30, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Shapira’s office applauded the efforts made to address these insufficient bomb shelters under a program known as National Outline Plan #38, or by its Hebrew acronym Tama 38, which encourages building owners to renovate their properties and improve their bomb shelters.

The report did note, however, that while many take advantage of this program in Israel’s larger cities, it is not used to the same extent in farther-flung locales — the so-called periphery.

Though the Finance Ministry told the comptroller’s office that it has called for “complementary tools to encourage fortifying buildings” in “low property value areas,” no such programs have been established, the report said.

The lack of protective shelter for the Bedouins in southern Israel garnered special attention in the report. Following the 2014 Gaza war, the population took the government to court demanding shelters, both because of and despite the fact that they generally live in less permanent homes, which lack the concrete walls of many Israeli dwellings.

The court upheld their demand, instructing the government to supply the Bedouins with bomb shelters, but that has yet to come to fruition, the report said.

According to Shapira’s office, these gaps in the number of people with suitable bomb shelters “influences the decisions of political and military figures both before a military operation and throughout.”

Coordination concerns, incomplete plans

Yet despite the lack of proper bomb shelters for large segments of the Israeli population, the comptroller also found deficiencies in the government’s evacuation plans — a last ditch measure in the event of attack.

The largest of these plans — known as “host hotel” — was adopted in 2013, but has yet to be fully fleshed out, Shapira said.

“Within the scope of this plan, every local authority was required to build a capability to absorb evacuees, up to 4 percent of its population, a process that is still underway,” Yonatan Shaham and Meir Elran of the Institute for National Security Studies wrote in an article earlier this year.

Troops from the IDF's Home Front Command assist in evacuations in Haifa in light of a massive fire in parts of the city on November 24, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Troops from the IDF’s Home Front Command assist in evacuations in Haifa in light of a massive fire in parts of the city on November 24, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“No national approach has been formulated in relation to basic questions such as who should be evacuated, according to which priorities, and under what circumstances, and who is in a position to make the decision,” said Shaham and Elran, experts in homeland security, in their October article.

The Defense Ministry, in response to Shapira’s report, noted that while the “host hotel” plan has yet to be fully developed, two other plans have been.

“The programs ‘Motel’ and ‘Safe Distance’… are evacuation plans that are the most detailed, coordinated and accurate that we have ever prepared to treat an evacuated population, almost to the level of the individual family,” the ministry said Tuesday.

“Every community on the northern border and surrounding Gaza knows to evacuate itself in an emergence, and every government ministry (health, education, welfare, interior and more) knows what its role is,” the ministry said, noting that evacuation exercises have been conducted in the past year.

The comptroller also noted an oft-repeated critique of Israel’s emergency services — a lack of formalized, documented areas of responsibility.

Though legally required to establish the roles of various state bodies during a war or large-scale natural disaster, Israel’s Defense and Public Security Ministries — which between them are responsible for the military, police, firefighters and medical services — tend to operate based on mutual understandings, rather than in line with formal documents.

Head of the IDF's Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick speaks with the head of the fire department over the plans to fight a blaze in the city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Head of the IDF’s Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick speaks with the head of the fire department over the plans to fight a blaze in the city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In response to the criticism, the Defense Ministry on Tuesday noted just that issue, saying that, “despite the fact that the process of formalizing responsibilities with the Public Security Ministry has yet to be completed in written form, this formalization exists in practice between the ministries.”

Security officials have made similar claims over the years, downplaying the importance of a formal breakdown of power in preference for generally agreed-upon understandings.

Shapira’s office, however, warned that these deficiencies in coordination “could harm the preparedness of the home front.”

INSS’s Elran, writing in another article on Israel’s home front, noted that the Jewish state has consistently downplayed the importance of defensive preparations in favor of offensive action to neutralize the threat.

“The overriding notion was that the IDF was capable of sealing the borders to the extent that the regular police force, together with other civilian agencies, would be able to provide an adequate response to any threat. The outcome was a slow deterioration of [civil defense] professional effectiveness, and its marginalization in terms of resources,” Elran wrote in July.

An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (AP/Dan Balilty)
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (AP/Dan Balilty)

For years, this strategy worked; however, after years of “low intensity” conflicts, Israel learned that “the offensive posture alone carries profound challenges, both operational and diplomatic,” Elran said.

The comptroller reporter also noted the IDF’s “attack and interception capabilities,” referring to the Iron Dome missile defense system, “which are likely to minimize the fire over Israel, lessen the damage and even act as a deterrent element.”

However, Shapira said, “the IDF must still prepare for the scenario in which thousands, even tens of thousands, of rockets and missiles are fired at Israel during a war-time period, a number of missiles that raise great doubts as to whether the IDF has sufficient means to defend against them.”

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