Running on empty

Irate residents claim that many city officials abandoned Safed during the war.

September 21, 2006 07:50


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When the town of Safed was hit by a torrent of Katyusha rockets in the early days of the recent war, everyone was caught by surprise.

Israel's northernmost towns and cities such as Metulla and Kiryat Shmona had grown used to living under the threat of Katyusha attacks and had an automatic response with accessible and livable bomb shelters. But not so Safed, where few had imagined the possibility that the missiles could reach so far and most bomb shelters had not been checked for decades. Many residents did not even know where their nearest bomb shelter was; others found locked shelters with no one claiming to hold the key.

At this time of national crisis - when the residents were confused and terrified and had no idea what to do or how to defend themselves - the one place they turned to for help and advice, their local municipality, failed them. Within a few days, the municipality was reportedly virtually empty of all the officials whose task it is to run the town. According to local residents, all the municipal cars disappeared with them, adding insult to injury. These vehicles were desperately needed during the ensuing weeks to deliver food and other essentials to residents confined to shelters.

According to the Home Front Command, only 17 out of a total 350 municipal officials remained in Safed after the war's first few days. The mayor, Yishai Maimon, stayed but was unable to run the town on his own and appeared unable or unwilling to order his officials back to their jobs. As a result, the Home Front Command took control of the town and brought in hundreds of reservists on emergency call-up, who did their best to take care of beleaguered residents who had been left without anyone to turn to.

The chaos and damage that resulted from this mass desertion - as well as tales of corruption in high places - were recounted at a meeting held in Safed on August 29. Dr. Yitzhak Stern, a doctor who remained in Safed throughout the war, called the meeting after being appalled by stories he had heard from his patients.

At this meeting, attended by some 120 city dwellers including the mayor, local residents told of calling the municipal call center (moked) - their lifeline in a time of crisis - desperate to find out which pharmacy or clinic was open or where a bank was operating, only to receive incorrect information or no information at all. Repeatedly, they complained that no one knew and no one seemed to care.

Participants at the meeting heard that in the early days of the war, the municipality received an unknown number of vouchers for short-term stays at Jerusalem hotels. These vouchers were intended for the weak, frail, elderly and infirm who could not cope with life under fire. Within a few days, they said, many high-ranking municipal officials and their extended families had disappeared to the center of the country -- and so had the vouchers.

According to another resident's account, many air-conditioning units were donated for immediate installation in the city's bomb shelters. A few found their way to the shelters, while dozens more found their way to a private warehouse in Netanya.

Safed's Ministry of Social Welfare office, which is always busy tending to the needs of poorer and weaker residents, operated under tremendous pressure with fewer staff members and far greater demand than usual. Elderly people who were physically unable to leave town and desperate for help called the moked only to be told that they were "not on the list, so I can't help you." Several residents, on seeing their neighbors being evacuated to hotels in the center of the country, called the moked to ask how they could be evacuated, too. They were told: "There is a list and you are not on it." The residents demanded to know who had compiled those lists.

Another resident told of a visit from a senior government official that resulted in a complete redecoration and installation of necessary equipment in the only bomb shelter he visited.

When a delegation arrived from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center with $650,000 to distribute to war-torn towns, the mayor of Safed allegedly could not be located. Repeated calls to his spokesman remained unanswered and messages were not returned.

Mayor Maimon declined the opportunity to respond to the allegations at the meeting.

After the cease-fire was declared, the municipal employees who had left at the first sign of trouble returned to their desks and expect to continue with business as usual. But the city's residents are not prepared to bury the hatchet. Incensed and outraged, they are calling for a police investigation into the municipality's perceived failure to function during the war and into all the allegations of corruption laid against many top officials.

Safed - one of Israel's four holiest cities, famed for its artists' quarter, ancient synagogues and home to Judaism's most famous mystics -- was allegedly dubbed "The disgrace of the North" by the Home Front Command, reported Yediot Aharonot.

An audio recording was made of the meeting, and the stories and residents' testimonies are being transcribed for presentation to the police.

When asked by Metro to respond to the allegations, Safed's municipal spokesman Moshe Ohana maintained that all the accusations were baseless rumors. Ohana stated that 90 out of the 350 municipal staff remained at their posts, adding that most of the other workers fill non-essential roles, such as kindergarten teachers.

"Either way," he said, "the government did not declare a state of emergency that would have forced them to remain in their workplace, so they could not be fired for leaving."

Ohana admitted that two cars had been removed by municipal workers who left, and they had their travel allowance rescinded. But he claimed that there never were any hotel vouchers, and offers of accommodation from hotels were also distributed in other northern towns as their plight worsened during the ensuing weeks.

Ohana said that 7,000 residents were evacuated and a committee that included social workers and members of the municipality's treasury department decided who met the criteria.

According to Ohana, the moked had originally been housed in a building without a bomb shelter, and it took some time to relocate it to a safer location. He also said that not a single person in Safed was hungry or uncared for during the war, and municipal councilors went from bomb shelter to bomb shelter to see that everyone was all right, at great personal risk.

According to Ohana, the Home Front Command is suing Yediot Aharonot for publishing the "disgrace of the North" remark, which it says was never made. He claims to have letters from the Home Front Command praising Safed for its work during the war, as well as other letters of thanks from grateful residents. When this writer requested to be faxed copies of these letters, none were received.

Asked why Maimon did not issue a denial or refutation at the meeting, Ohana replied that the mayor saw the meeting as a political ploy and was not prepared to respond.

On hearing the municipality's response, Stern commented that Ohana's remarks speak for themselves. "Is it enough to rescind the travel expenses of people who steal municipal cars in a time of war? If a town's residents feel they were deserted by those in power, it's their right to demand an official police inquiry," Stern told Metro. "The people of Safed want to know the truth, and that will only come out in an official inquiry."

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