(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Disengagement Authority (Sela) head Yonatan Bassi responded to a State Comptroller report released for publication Wednesday morning by criticizing the fact that the press received the report before him and that it was presented just three weeks prior to elections.
In his report State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss blasted the Disengagement Authority, the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry for their poor performance in handling the evacuation and resettlement of 1,750 families from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
"A supreme and concentrated national effort was required of all the ministries that dealt with the disengagement, and above all by the Prime Minister's Office and Sela," wrote Lindenstrauss.
Bassi, speaking to Israel Radio, accused Lindenstrauss of making inappropriate comments at various forums regarding the issue.
"It is clear that this report will become a central issue in the upcoming elections. One cannot deny the inconspicuous timing of this report," he said.
MK Aryeh Eldad called for Bassi to be fired immediately, and demanded that someone "worthy, who was truly interested in helping the thousands of refugees," be hired.
Eldad also called for larger funds and employment quotas for the evacuees so they could begin rebuilding their lives, "which were ruined due to the maliciousness and unreceptiveness of the government."
Bassi added that every single evacuated settler has a housing solution, but that not everyone wanted those solutions, saying, "the facts presented in the report are completely out of context."
He noted that construction at Ein Tzurim, earmarked to house Gaza evacuees, was delayed because of large amounts of rain.
"I believe that by this upcoming Pesach, all, or almost all of the evacuees will be out of hotels. But people must understand, the decision to stay in hotels has largely been there decision."
Lindenstrauss went on to write in his report, "I especially emphasize the bureaucratic procrastination in the conduct of the Ministry of Finance as it emerges in the [previous] report on reinforcing the Jewish communities on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip and, now again, regarding Sela. The Finance Ministry and its head ought to have initiated a speedy and concentrated action to remove the obstacles and impediments [to the financing of the authority] in time," he wrote.
The trouble began immediately after the government decision on June 6, 2004 to establish Sela, wrote Lindenstrauss. It took at least two-and-a-half months for the Treasury to submit its request to the Knesset Finance Committee for approval of the allocation to establish the Disengagement Authority. Formal approval of the request was given on September 26, almost three months after the projected date, according to the government timetable.
By December 12 people were working for Sela, but by April that number was only up to 17. Another 38 were hired in the months before the disengagement began on August 17, most of them in June.
Some of the delay was bureaucratic. It was only in July 2005, after Sela had filed requests to hire additional workers in February, March and May that a special government committee agreed to lift a hiring freeze for 42 positions. Lindenstrauss also found that the Disengagement Authority had often submitted requests for workers much later than it should have.
Sela was aware of the lack of manpower caused by bureaucratic delays, but according to Lindenstrauss, Sela head Yonatan Bassi "did not warn senior managers of the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury about the problems with the necessary urgency."
The state comptroller also examined how Sela handled the resettlement of the evacuees in the aftermath of disengagement, specifically how it fared in providing the settlers with immediate temporary housing in the days following the withdrawal and longer-term temporary housing for the period until permanent housing was completed.
Lindenstrauss found that Sela had underestimated the number of short-term temporary solutions that would be required for the evacuees. Despite knowing ahead of time that it would need short-term housing for about half of the families (870), Sela only prepared 800 hotel rooms.
On the day the evacuation began, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office said the government would have to cope with more than 1,000 families. Sela rented another 1,000 rooms, and by the end of the evacuation, it had rented a total of 2,800 rooms at a cost of NIS 200 million.
Originally, Sela had declared that most of the settlers would only be allowed to remain in the hotel rooms at full board for two weeks. But more than six months later, hundreds of families still reside in hotels.
The move to longer-term temporary housing has been delayed because it took longer than expected to complete construction of the mobile homes and other temporary housing in Nitzan, Karmiya and Yad Hanna, and of the 840 rental apartments in Ashkelon reserved for evacuees (at a cost of NIS 5m.), only 63 were rented.
Lindenstrauss also investigated the lack of support staff to help the families in their transition to temporary housing, and the tardiness in establishing a telephone information center for settlers to place calls anonymously. Work on the center began in February, but it only became operational a few days before the evacuation.
In a second report also issued on Wednesday, Lindenstrauss criticized the government for not properly preparing local authorities for absorption of the 1,750 evacuee families.
According to the report, the success of disengagement depended in part on the ability of the local authorities to absorb the evacuees. Nevertheless, the government did not do enough to include them in the planning stages, and provided them with guidelines for handling the families too late in the process.
The government also failed to specify who would pay for some of the special services that had to be provided to the evacuee families, such as organized transportation for school children, new daycares and kindergartens, welfare payments, community activities and workshops, etc.
"The instructions that the local authorities received from the government ministries and particularly from the Prime Minister's Office, the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Social Welfare were incomplete and insufficiently detailed," wrote Lindenstrauss. "The lack of detailed instructions harmed the preparedness of the local authorities to absorb the evacuees."
In Ashkelon, for example, the municipality and the Disengagement Authority argued until the last minute over who was to be responsible for providing social workers at local absorption centers for the evacuees and who would pay for them. Agreement was reached just a few days before most of the evacuees arrived in the city.
Lindenstrauss, however, accepted in part the claims of government authorities that they could not provide more detailed information because of the Hof Gaza Regional Council's refusal to provide information and files about the settlers and their needs. In fact, the head of the council threatened to fire any employee who cooperated with the government authorities. Many of the settlers themselves also refused to cooperate with the authorities, wrote Lindenstrauss.
Even with those evacuee services that were set to be financed by the government, it took many months to determine how the grants would be calculated, and consequently, exactly how much money each local authority would receive. It was only in September, two weeks after the evacuation, that the government finally decided on the criteria for allocating funds.
Until then, because they could no longer wait, some of the local authorities began providing necessary services to the evacuees without government approval and in violation of the law.
Also, during the period where funding guidelines were unclear, the heads of the local authorities put pressure on the government to give them money to cope with the immediate emergency. These allocations were not granted equally, but rather according to the skills and connections of the individual local leaders.