Nearly one year after the Second Lebanon War, many of Kiryat Shmona's public bomb shelters are still uninhabitable, filled with dead animals and rancid garbage or lacking proper plumbing, electricity or ventilation, a Jerusalem Post probe has learned.
The war raised public awareness of the condition of the bomb shelters. Many residents were unable to enter the neglected shelters and were forced to hide underneath stairs and buildings. Only then did it become apparent that efforts must be made to upgrade the outdated structures.
Livnot U'Lehibanot (To Build and to be Built), a community service and Jewish education program based in Safed and Jerusalem, has seized and embraced the opportunity to repair the shelters, in response to the government's slow activity in this area. Last December, Livnot's professionals and volunteers began working together with local residents to repair the shelters. Livnot receives much of its funding from the UJA Federation of New York, which granted $1,657,400 to the project.
The government's slow activity in this area has spurred much criticism, both here and in Jewish communities abroad. "Time is crucial," said Lisa Balkan, director of marketing and public relations for Livnot. "We do not know what Hizbullah has up their sleeves, and this cannot be drawn out into a 12-month project."
The government recently announced an allocation of roughly NIS 90 million for a two-stage program to renovate over 3,300 public shelters and 2,700 low-income public housing shelters.
Despite this promised funding, Livnot is adamant about its plans to continue its renovation activities. "Livnot wants to be involved, on the municipal level, in the process of the shelter renovations in the areas in which we are already working," said Aharon Botzer, founder of Livnot U'Lehibanot.
Doron Snapper, a spokesman of Kiryat Shmona, said that Livnot plans to renovate 75 of the 212 public bomb shelters in his town. The remainder are to be renovated by private contractors hired by the state, together with 35 shelters in public institutions and 37 kindergarten shelters. "In Kiryat Shmona, there are 234 communal shelters. While 50 of them will be renovated soon by the B'nai B'rith non-profit organization and the municipality, 186 communal shelters will be renovated by the state through the Amidar company."
One of Livnot's goals in renovating the shelters is to not only make them usable during war time, but also to adapt them for communal use during peace time. Many of the shelters have been converted into centers for children and youth, libraries, club houses, dance studios and synagogues.
The passionate volunteers and the few hired workers have had a heartening influence on the city. "They have enhanced and changed the face of the city," said Tsodok Sacket, head of the Tiferet Organization in Kiryat Shmona, an aid group that works with people in crisis situations, assisting with communication within the home. The organization currently uses one of the renovated shelters as its office.
"The government could not give money for proper shelters," said Sackat, "but this Livnot project came in and improved so much." Livnot is funded by donations and with the efforts of thousands of volunteers, so it can do more with a limited amount of money, explained Botzer. Gabi Nachmani, director of Livnot's bomb shelter renovation project in Northern Israel, reported that ninety percent of the shelters in Hatzor do not have plumbing. For those who were living in the shelter during the war, whether for two days or 32, taking a shower was impossible and going to the bathroom unpleasant. Livnot has begun to renovate the old shelters, building secure bathrooms above ground for the residents to use.
"Politics is a non-issue," said Meir Talti, leader of the Go Galilee Initiative, a division of Livnot U'Lehibanot. For the volunteers, all that matters is their desire to help the communities affected by the war.
"Israel has given me so much," said Oren Langberg, a 22-year-old Livnot volunteer from New Jersey, "and now I want to give back." The shelters, cleaned and painted inside and out with picturesque scenes, are quickly becoming places of safety and tranquility. Once seen as a place of terror, they are now seen as a meeting point for positive activities.
"If there is another war, people won't leave the city," Sacket claimed, "because now, they feel safer due to the efforts of Livnot."