Gimme shelters: Comptroller says millions have nowhere to run from rockets

Report finds that plans to improve access to bomb shelters have foundered, though the country’s physical defenses and preparations for war have improved in recent years

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A man walks near an open bomb shelter in the northern Israeli city of Safed on December 4, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A man walks near an open bomb shelter in the northern Israeli city of Safed on December 4, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Nearly 30 percent of Israeli citizens do not have access to functioning bomb shelters near their homes, including over a quarter of a million people who live near the borders with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon — areas that are most likely to come under attack by rocket and missile fire — according to a state comptroller report released Monday.

According to State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, a fifth of all public bomb shelters — 2,494 out of 12,601 — would not offer proper protection if needed in the case of an attack.

These deficiencies are considered especially worrisome as rockets, mortar shells and missiles — hundreds of thousands of which are estimated to be in the arsenals of Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and lesser terror groups on Israel’s borders — represent some of the greatest threats facing Israel. In a future, multi-front war, Israeli military planners anticipate that upwards of a thousand projectiles could rain down on the country each day.

Masked members of Hamas ride a vehicle next to a rocket launcher during a rally in the Rafah refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Aug. 21, 2016 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“In the rounds of fighting in recent years, hundreds of missiles and rockets have been fired at Israel each day. This number is expected to grow, and tens of thousands of missiles and rockets will be fired at Israel during days of battle,” the comptroller wrote in the report, which is based on 2018 figures.

The figures published Monday represented an improvement in terms of the total number of citizens with access to bomb shelters since the state comptroller looked into the matter in 2016 — roughly a million Israelis gained access to bomb shelters during that period, according to the comptroller’s figures — but a decrease in the number of functioning public shelters.

According to the report, as of 2018, nearly 2.6 million Israelis lacked access to functional bomb shelters. Nearly 40 percent of Israelis — 3.5 million — had bomb shelters in their homes, while 27% had shared bomb shelters in their apartment buildings and another 6% had access to public bomb shelters in close proximity of their homes.

The investigation found a deterioration in the quality of the public bomb shelters. The report found that while 16% of the 10,657 public bomb shelters were considered insufficiently prepared in 2015, this went up to 20% of the 12,601 shelters in 2019.

Shared and public shelters in areas where missile attacks are less common are sometimes used as storage spaces by municipal authorities or others with regular access to them.

In general, the probe found that while the government has made decisions and approved plans to improve the country’s physical defenses against rocket attacks, many of those initiatives have not been carried out. In addition, the report found that while a decision was made in 2014 to formally transfer responsibility for the home front from the Public Security Ministry to the Defense Ministry, many aspects of this move have yet to be hashed out and resolved.

More positively, the report also noted that the government invested more money — NIS 400 million ($117 million) — over the course of 2015 to 2019 in developing early warning systems to alert the public to impending attack, which improved the home front’s preparedness.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“The State Comptroller’s Office checked the corrections to the main issues that were found in the previous investigation and found that there has been an improvement in the ability to detect and warn and in the preparedness of government offices to evacuate portions of the population,” according to the report.

“However, the plans to evacuate the populations have not been completed and some of them are not able to be carried out. In addition, it was found that many of the powers of the government bodies responsible for the home front have not been sorted out, that there are significant gaps in physical defenses and that the security cabinet’s decision to create a multi-year program to handle the home front has not been carried out.”

In response to the report, the Israel Defense Forces, whose Home Front Command is officially charged with overseeing the country’s physical defenses, acknowledged the deficiencies, but said it was unable to fully address the issue due to an insufficient budget.

Israeli children play by a colorfully painted public bomb shelter, in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz. July 6, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“The significant lacuna raised in the report, which is connected to decisions by the government that have yet to be carried out, comes from an inability to locate sources of funding for the matter,” the military said in a statement, adding that it was not responsible for this budgetary decision.

In its response, the Defense Ministry blamed the budget issue on the fact that the country had an interim government for over a year, which prevented it from advancing the issue.

“As long as a transitional government was in charge, there was no way to advance legislative processes. With the installment of the 35th Government [in May], the process has been restarted. The Defense Ministry is currently making the necessary adjustments to a bill [to address the deficiencies],” the ministry said in a statement.

The comptroller investigators also found that not all of the country’s critical facilities were protected against rocket and missile attacks, though the exact number of vulnerable sites — along with most of the details from this probe — were classified, including which government bodies were responsible for overseeing the matter.

In addition, the investigation determined that the government has failed to develop evacuation plans for many of the communities that would most likely come under attack, including the cities of Sderot, near Gaza, and Kiryat Shmona, near Lebanon. While evacuations have been performed without such plans — specifically during the 2014 Gaza war — the comptroller warns that doing so would be much more efficient with a clear, fixed understanding of which government bodies were responsible for what.

“Evacuating cities is a complicated event that requires planning and coordination between local authorities, the organizations performing the evacuation and other government bodies. Therefore, the planning for the evacuation of Sderot and Kiryat Shmona should be completed in advance, not waiting until the moment it needs to be carried out, if necessary, would be best,” the comptroller wrote.

The report also noted that the government was not well prepared to evacuate people with disabilities or other special needs.

A man seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter that was opened in the Golan Heights, in northern Israel, May 8, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

One notable positive note in the report was a program approved by then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, under which the public bomb shelters in Israeli communities within 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of the Syrian and Lebanese borders were renovated. Though yet to be completed, the program is supposed to receive the funding necessary to perform the necessary repairs and improvements, according to the comptroller.

On the other hand, an overall decision to build and repair the nation’s public and private bomb shelters — Security Cabinet Resolution 302/b — never got off the ground despite having been nominally approved by the government.

“The State Comptroller’s Office notes that fulfilling Security Cabinet Resolution 302/b would significantly improve the home front’s protective capability from rockets and earthquakes… The inter-agency team must act to create a multi-year plan in accordance with the resolution so that with the establishment of a new government, a funding source can be found to carry out the project,” the comptroller wrote in the report.

Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)

According to some national security experts, Israel relies more heavily upon its offensive and active defense capabilities, like the Iron Dome and other missile defense systems, to quickly neutralize threats, instead of building up its physical fortifications and preparing to more safely absorb an attack.

In its report, the comptroller warned that by not providing sufficient bomb shelters and other physical defenses, the government was risking civilian lives.

“The State Comptroller’s Office warns that not carrying out government decisions to defend the home front in time and the fact that for years there has not been comprehensive legislation regarding the home front have delayed and harmed the preparation of the home front for an emergency, a matter that is likely to have an impact on human lives,” the authors of the report said.

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