ToI investigatesThey said we'll protect you; I haven't heard from them since

Where are the mobile bomb shelters KKL-JNF promised Golan residents last spring?

During what it termed an emergency in May 2018, the organization raised NIS 2.4 million, circumvented the tender vetting process… and delivered one unit out of a promised 70

  • Chairman of KKL-Jewish National Fund Danny Atar poses for a picture in Jerusalem on July 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Chairman of KKL-Jewish National Fund Danny Atar poses for a picture in Jerusalem on July 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • A bomb shelter in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, on January 21, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
    A bomb shelter in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, on January 21, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
  • Then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter during his visit in Katzrin, May 11, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
    Then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter during his visit in Katzrin, May 11, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
  • A street bomb shelter for people to take cover during sirens warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, seen in the Southern Israeli city of Sderot, on July 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    A street bomb shelter for people to take cover during sirens warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, seen in the Southern Israeli city of Sderot, on July 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • View of the border fence with Syria from the Israeli side in the Golan Heights, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)
    View of the border fence with Syria from the Israeli side in the Golan Heights, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

When US President Donald Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May of last year, the Israel Defense Forces placed residents of the Golan Heights on high alert and ordered local authorities there to open public bomb shelters as a precaution in the event of an armed response from pro-Iran forces in Syria.

Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) chairman Danny Atar also sprang into action, launching a fundraising operation across Europe and North America to provide miguniot, or small bomb shelters, for Golan residents.

These shelters have the advantage of being mobile, affordable and easily deployed to provide immediate protection against rocket and mortar attacks. They have proved themselves mainly in public facilities, such as playgrounds and bus stations, and in agricultural areas. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2014, around 160 of these mobile shelters were provided to southern towns adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Atar’s rapid response initiative for the protection of the Golan Heights was quickly publicized. On the day after Trump’s declaration, KKL-JNF released a video, published on several news sites, in which a mobile shelter is seen being lowered from a truck and carefully put into place at Kibbutz Merom Golan in the western Golan Heights.

Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks take positions near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Together with the release of the video, the organization announced its intention to purchase a total of 70 mobile shelters, promising they would arrive “tomorrow.” (A Channel 13 tweet said they would be in place “in the next hour.”) It also highlighted the launch of the fundraising campaign to cover their estimated cost: NIS 2.4 million (about $664,000).

Atar stressed his organization’s vital role in strengthening the north in times of emergency: “KKL-JNF’s commitment to the periphery in general, and to areas such as the Golan Heights in particular, is not only expressed in its daily contribution to the development of these areas, but also in emergencies and situations of heightened readiness which require special preparation,” he said.

KKL-JNF’s public relations campaign yielded the desired results: within a few weeks, its overseas fundraising division received pledges of hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance this urgent protection for residents of the north. Sources within KKL-JNF told The Times of Israel that the NIS 2.4 million target sum, and possibly slightly more, was successfully raised. Donors from France pledged to fund the purchase of seven shelters; Swiss donors pledged to purchase six, and donors from Italy and Norway gave thousands of dollars to this end.

Yet over 10 months later, despite the fundraising campaign’s success, residents are still waiting for the remaining 69 bomb shelters — the entire promised number minus the one shown in the video.

A tender subject

With the money having been pledged, the next stage would normally have been to set up criteria for the project, including the terms for a tender to find a company to produce the mobile shelters — a process requiring the approval of KKL-JNF’s tenders committee.

In fact, however, the tenders committee, headed by director general Amnon Ben Amir, had convened and decided how to move ahead with the project before the fundraising campaign was even announced — on the same day as Trump declared the US withdrawal from the Iran deal: May 8, 2018.

This timing raises several questions. Did KKL-JNF predict a security emergency even before defense officials did? And did it then arrange the purchase of the mobile shelters in advance, based perhaps on Trump’s threats against Iran?

Then-Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter during a visit to Katzrin in the Golan Heights, May 11, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

KKL-JNF, as a public benefit corporation — and not a public company — is not subject to Israel’s mandatory tenders law, which requires that major contracts undergo strict vetting for accountability. However, it does have its own internal guidelines, which provide an exemption from strict vetting for contracts totaling less than NIS 400,000 (about $110,000).

In the case of the mobile bomb shelters, however, the KKL-JNF tenders committee decided to circumvent its own exemption threshold, citing emergency security measures with an immediate time-based need.

In all, sources familiar with the process told The Times of Israel, the committee approved the immediate purchase of 67 mobile shelters at NIS 30,000 ($8,300) each, and three additional larger bomb shelters that cost a total of NIS 400,000 ($110,660), for a total outlay of NIS 2.4 million. (That sum was six times the KKL-JNF’s internal allowable exemption.)

The status of the order — including whether any of the shelters have actually been produced yet — is not clear, nor is it clear whether the manufacturer has received any payment. The deputy director of KKL-JNF’s Northern District, Erez Stein, said recently that Herzliya’s Ackerstein Industries was in the process of building the shelters, but the company would not confirm this. KKL-JNF has not answered specific questions on the matter.

The committee publicized its decision as follows at the time: “Following the announcement by President Donald Trump of the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, threats were issued on the part of Iran. This led to a state of alert in the IDF, and orders from Homefront Command to open public shelters and direct special assistance to affected areas. In light of the deep concern expressed by these [local] authorities regarding the lack of mobile shelters, the KKL-JNF has decided to assist the authorities in their purchase and installation under the close supervision and control of the KKL-JNF.”

A bomb shelter in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, on January 21, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Further complicating matters, exemptions from tenders are usually, though not always, given to the providers and suppliers of services or products, rather than to their recipients. If KKL-JNF had wanted to expedite an order for the manufacture of mobile shelters, it would have normally requested an exemption for the company it wanted to make the shelters, and then transferred the necessary donated funds to finance production.

In this case, however, KKL-JNF approved an exemption for the service receivers — that is, the Golan regional council and the Katzrin local council. A legal source told The Times of Israel that this process was “strange and unusual.”

“The exemption from a tender with the Golan Regional Council and the Katzrin Local Council raises a number of questions,” said the source, who is familiar with KKL-JNF’s working procedures, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If the KKL-JNF exempted these councils, then who paid the manufacturers and in what way?”

The source did note, however, that “a situation defined as an ’emergency’ may be a reason for exemption from a tender — for example when the contract in question is urgently required to prevent real damage, or when the very act of conducting the tender is liable to significantly harm the security of the state.” And, the source added, “In rare situations, the tenders committee can also approve an exemption based on a proper procedure conducted by the regional council.”

Chairman of KKL-Jewish National Fund Danny Atar in Jerusalem on July 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The greater the amount of money involved, the legal source stressed, the more care should be taken to follow exemption guidelines meticulously.

In the case of the purchase of the mobile shelters, however, the source said, rather than increased transparency, there are a number of unresolved questions — including why the Golan councils were granted exemptions, and if these exemptions can be legitimately applied; who, if anyone, was responsible for supervising the councils’ purchase of the shelters from the manufacturer(s); whether KKL-JNF properly supervised the carrying out of the project; and, of course, what has become of the funding and the shelters.

Emergency measures

As it turned out, tensions on the northern border dissipated as weeks passed without any major incident, and the state of emergency was lowered. However, KKL-JNF did not revert to the usual procedures for purchasing the mobile shelters, which, while more protracted, ensure greater transparency and accountability.

“Obviously, if the emergency ends and the order hasn’t been made or a binding contract signed, there’s no reason to continue the exemption,” said one legal source.

Senior KKL-JNF officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, alleged that the KKL-JNF tenders committee had made several decisions in the past in which exemptions from tenders were granted under unclear circumstances, or decisions were made for problematic reasons or involved a conflict of interest. Israel’s state comptroller, Yosef Shapira, referred to this in reports in which KKL-JNF’s activities were subject to criticism.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira attends the presentation of the State Comptroller’s report at the Knesset, March 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

‘There’s talk and there’s action. In this case, it’s just talk’

Meanwhile, the northern residents who were supposed to receive the mobile shelters several months ago via KKL-JNF, courtesy of the international Jewish community, are still waiting. Almost a year after that single mobile shelter was placed in the field, KKL-JNF’s Stein referred to it in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel as a “pilot.”

“I’m familiar with the subject of the mobile shelters,” said Katzrin’s head of security, Avi Lugasi. “But as you know, there’s talk and there’s action. In this case, it’s just talk. There was an emergency, they wanted to appear attentive, but since then they’ve disappeared. Danny Atar called me in May and said, ‘We want to contribute the mobile shelters that will protect you, and they’ll be coming quickly.’ I haven’t heard from him since. And there’s no discussion about when they’ll arrive.”

The director of the Kaztrin local council, Lilach Geva, also said she does not know what happened to the public commitment to provide those dozens of mobile shelters to the residents of the north.

View of the border fence with Syria from the Israeli side in the Golan Heights, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“In May, we had three very challenging days, and there was a real need for shelters,” Geva said. “We joined forces with KKL-JNF and the [Golan] regional council to deploy mobile shelters as soon as possible, because there was a real need for fast solutions. Now, the sirens have ended, and the sense of urgency has passed. But I’m not a military official; you need to speak with the army.”

The Times of Israel did contact the Israel Defense Forces to clarify the position of the Homefront Command, the military body tasked with the security of civilians both in wartime and peacetime, regarding the KKL-JNF-promised mobile shelters. The Homefront Command, which was cited in the tenders committee statement after it met to advance the project, said it was unaware of any new plan for civilian protection on the Golan Heights.

Sources within KKL-JNF claimed that opposition from the Homefront Command was the reason the deployment of the mobile shelters has been on hold for so many months. “When the Homefront Command heard about the plan and found out they were not in the loop, they were furious. Top officials contacted the KKL-JNF administration and asked them to put the plan on hold,” said a high-ranking official in KKL-JNF.

“We are not familiar with this plan, and they did not consult with us. We are not in the loop,” the Homefront Command said in its statement. “It isn’t within our mandate to prevent a local authority from placing mobile shelters in the area within their purview, and we are supportive of independent initiatives,” it added.

Small mobile concrete shelters in southern Israel near Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, 2014. (Natan Flayer, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

“However, the Homefront Command is the body responsible for full civil defense,” is noted, “and is happy to advise the local authorities regarding its planning and positioning aspects, and it is the expectation of the Homefront Command that those same authorities will consult with us. It should be noted that in most cases there is indeed coordination between the local authorities and the Homefront Command, when the Homefront Command acts as the professional authority on the subject. In terms of civil defense, the Homefront Command is the professional body.”

The Homefront Command further clarified that there is a set procedure prioritizing protective measures according to geographical area, risk level and other factors. Asked whether there is currently a special need for additional mobile shelters in the Golan Heights, Homefront Command responded in the negative.

In a widely distributed internal KKL-JNF email from last June that was seen by The Times of Israel, KKL-JNF’s Stein wrote about the planned transfer of the mobile shelters to the relevant councils, including the delivery costs; noted the credit that KKL-JNF would receive with the deployment of the shelters; and even discussed the sign on which the names of major donors would appear. He also wrote: “We do not know of negotiations with the Homefront Command.”

This all suggests that KKL-JNF may have embarked on a mission to aid the residents of the north without consulting the military body tasked with civilian security.

Frozen for months

Stein told The Times of Israel that KKL-JNF is currently trying to jump-start the plan, which he acknowledged has been frozen for a number of months. “In the coming weeks,” he said, KKL-JNF is expected to begin the process of deploying the mobile shelters.

According to KKL-JNF officials, if the mobile shelters are not deployed, the organization will have to return the donations it received for the project. KKL-JNF management would presumably prefer to avoid a fiasco with Friends of KKL-JNF organizations abroad, which raised the funds.

A street bomb shelter for people to take cover during sirens warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, seen in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on July 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Stein said Ackerstein Industries, which says on its website that it “provides unique solutions for complex & extraordinary projects,” is now producing the mobile shelters.

If so, the firm should presumably have submitted a bid either to KKL-JNF or to the local authorities. However, sources familiar with the issue said, no tender for the project has been issued.

In the market for the manufacture of mobile shelters, no such tender has been seen. A representative from the Ifat Tenders bulletin board website told The Times of Israel that no tender for the manufacture of mobile shelters has been issued in the last two years.

KKL-JNF declined to respond to questions from The Times of Israel regarding the issuing of a tender.

Ackerstein Industries did not respond to queries on whether it had submitted a bid to KKL-JNF for the production of the mobile shelters, or on whether the shelters have been made or are being made. The company instead referred The Times of Israel to the Golan Regional Council, saying that “our company is a supplier to the Council and therefore cannot answer questions without their approval.”

No answer was received from the Regional Council.

Senior officials within KKL-JNF have criticized the way the project has been handled under Atar, and say it reflects a wider malaise.

“The manner in which KKL-JNF decisions are made sometimes leaves the impression of a whim, rather than of filling a real need,” said one current high-ranking official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The fact of the matter is that in the field, the staff does not understand what they are tasked with, because at any moment guidelines and requirements are changing.”

The Times of Israel submitted a list of questions to the KKL-JNF spokesperson’s office relating to the entire project, including regarding the timing, the procedures, the puzzling tender issue vis-à-vis the local authorities, the delays, the apparent disregard of the Homefront Command, the current justification for the continuation of the project, and whether or not any tender was issued.

The border area between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, February 20, 2019. (Maor Kinsbursky/ Flash90)

The KKL-JNF response did not address any of the questions specifically. “These are incorrect and erroneous facts that do not reflect the JNF’s proper and transparent conduct,” it said in its response.

“Following the escalation on the northern border in May 2018, and in view of the state of special readiness declared by the Homefront Command and the need that arose in the area, the JNF was involved in assisting the local authorities in the northern region with purchasing mobile shelters,” it said.

“The agreement was made with the Golan Regional Council and the Kaztrin Local Council according to all official procedures, and they were responsible for its management and execution. The JNF is proud of its activities for the benefit of Israeli residents in the Galilee and the Negev, and will continue to help reduce the gap between the center and the periphery, and move one million new residents to the Negev, and a half million new residents to the Galilee,” it said.

Despite repeated attempts to contact the councils for comment, no response was received at the time of publication.

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