State ombudsman: Holocaust restitution company kept 84% of assets
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State ombudsman: Holocaust restitution company kept 84% of assets

Shapira also raps Transportation Ministry for failing to prevent traffic deaths, which topped 32,000 since founding of state

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the head of the Knesset's State Control Committee MK Karin Elharar (L) on November 1, 2016 (Knesset spokesperson's office/Yitzhak Harari)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the head of the Knesset's State Control Committee MK Karin Elharar (L) on November 1, 2016 (Knesset spokesperson's office/Yitzhak Harari)

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira on Tuesday slammed a restitution organization for failing to return some 84 percent of properties and assets to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

The criticism, in the ombudsman’s annual economic report, focused on the operations of the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, which was set up by the government in 2006 to assist survivors in recovering their property.

The report found that since it was established, the company has recovered property worth NIS 1.8 billion ($470 million) and returned just NIS 280 million to survivors, barely 15.6% of the total.

The company has been in negotiations for several years regarding the reimbursement of other property. In cases where the original owners of the property or their descendants can’t be identified, the company is supposed to use the funds it recovers to assist and support other survivors. Although in the past it has provided support worth NIS 750 million, its budget was reduced in 2015, and in 2016 it stopped funding other survivors entirely.

Shapira called for greater efforts to be made to speed up the restitution.

Holocaust survivors walk with others through the main gate of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland, on January 27, 2016, the 71st anniversary of the death camp's liberation by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
Holocaust survivors walk with others through the main gate of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland, on January 27, 2016, the 71st anniversary of the death camp’s liberation by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

“This should be urgently acted on, because to our regret, the generation of survivors is shrinking every day,” he wrote.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein thanked Shapira for the report, which he said “improves the reality around us and deals with very deep matters such as infrastructure and transport.”

Concerning the Holocaust survivors restitution, Edelstein said: “The matter is in our souls. Everything that can be said about it has been said. There were defects found in the system that helps and supports Holocaust survivors. A determined and prompt effort should be made so that historical justice be seen and be done. I hope that the groups reviewed will take into account the comments in a manner that will see improvements on the ground.”

Trouble on the roads

The comptroller’s report also found multiple faults with efforts by the National Road Safety Authority, the Transportation Ministry, and the Education Ministry to reduce the number of road deaths in Israel, even as the figures for fatalities rose over the past two years.

The annual report also cautioned that the IDF is lacking appropriate fire-fighting equipment at some of its bases.

Road safety made up the largest section of the report, focusing on a review of the NRSA, an independent government body set up in 2007 following a government decision two years earlier to begin in earnest a campaign at decreasing road deaths.

The report found that more than 32,000 people have died on Israel’s roads since the establishment of the state. In 2015, 356 people died, and the figure for 2016, already at 312, is set to be even higher.

During the period of August 2015 to January 2016, the comptroller examined what the NRSA and other bodies such as the police were doing to reverse the trend. The NSRA receives its budget from the Transportation Ministry and is charged with funding and administering activities to improve road safety and raise awareness, including educational activities in the school system. Its budget in 2014 was NIS 276 million, but dropped to NIS 230 million for 2015.

“The review found many faults in the activities of the Transportation Ministry and the NSRA, and also in certain ways, the activities of other bodies that deal with the campaign, including the police and the Education Ministry.”

Aside from the human cost, the report estimated that in 2012 traffic accidents, including those in which there were no injuries, cost the Israeli economy NIS 15 billion.

The scene of a car accident in the Jezreel Valley in which two teenage sisters were killed, September 1, 2015 (United Hatzalah of Israel)
The scene of a car accident in the Jezreel Valley in which two teenage sisters were killed, September 1, 2015 (United Hatzalah of Israel)

In addition to car accidents, pedestrians are also being injured on the streets. A change in law passed in 2015 giving right of way to pedestrians at crossings is not being enforced by police and has not been included in traffic fine regulations, the report said.

Another concern raised was the drop in the number of spot checks the Transportation Ministry carried out on vehicles. Checks on vehicles weighing more than 12 tons dropped from 5,840 in 2013 to 4,000 in 2014. While heavy vehicles only make up 3% of the vehicles on the roads, they accounted for 20% of the fatal accidents in 2014 and 2015. A decision taken by the government in 2005 to require heavy vehicles to carry digital tachographs — a device that keeps track the number of hours the driver spends behind the wheel and how far is driven— has not been implemented. Likewise, a call to require quarterly checks for all heavy vehicles at qualified garages was not put into practice.

High school education programs were also slashed significantly, the report found.

The scene of an April 2013 accident in Haifa (photo credit: Flash90)
The scene of an April 2013 accident in Haifa (photo credit: Flash90)

“The reduction in these activities damages education on safe driving and in the training of young drivers,” Shapira wrote.

Enforcement of the law has suffered due to a drop in the number of police patrol cars on inter-city roads. At end of 2015 there were supposed to be 113 patrol cars but by September 2015 there were just 75 during two shifts during the day and 37 patrol cars at night.

Overall, the NSRA lacks the power and authority it needs to lead the campaign against accidents, Shapira concluded.

He recommended that the “government needs to form a general plan and to clarify the position and function of the authority.”

Police, he wrote, must enforce the updates to regulations giving pedestrians right of way and increase the number of patrol cars on the highways. The Transportation Ministry should put into practice quarterly checks on heavy vehicles and act promptly to fill the missing places on the NRSA.

The Education Ministry should work with the NSRA “to find means to increase activities for transportation education, in particular because there is no other body that teaches young drivers about the dangers involved in driving.”

Or Yarok, a private NGO working to improve road safety since 1997, said the report justified its long-standing criticism of the government for its recent slack attitude toward road safety.

“The state comptroller report is a serious indictment against the Transportation Ministry and the road safety that it leads,” Or Yarok said in a statement. “The most serious failure is that of the prime minister who doesn’t even gather the government for an emergency discussion about the matter. When the government dealt with it the number of deaths dropped — now it prefers money over saving lives.”

Fire hazards on base

Serious flaws in two central IDF ammunition bases presenting a “serious” fire hazard were symptomatic of a widespread problem in the army, which lacks adequate means to deal with fires at many of its sites. Problems at the ammunition bases included a lack of fire hydrants near many storehouses and old pipes that could burst under the pressure of water needed to put out a blaze.

An F-15 in its hangar in the Ovda air force base (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
An F-15 in its hangar in the Ovda air force base (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

The Israel Air Force doesn’t have a central record of firefighting systems at its large number of underground facilities, the report said. An IAF investigation in July 2015 found that in 45 operation buildings, including five control towers, 14 didn’t have fire extinguishing systems. In one tower, service personnel on the fifth floor would not be able to escape as there was no external ladder leading to the floor below.

Shapira recommended that a high-level report be prepared detailing the lack of firefighting equipment and to review the budget needed to complete the work, which has been estimated by internal IDF reviews as some NIS 1.7 billion.

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