The dire lack of bomb shelters in the North

Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Hezbollah launched close to 4,000 rockets and wounded 1,400 civilians in 34 days.

Residents and security personnel gather in a bomb shelter inside a house that was hit earlier, as air-raid siren goes off for incoming rockets from Gaza, in Sderot, Israel March 25, 2019 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Residents and security personnel gather in a bomb shelter inside a house that was hit earlier, as air-raid siren goes off for incoming rockets from Gaza, in Sderot, Israel March 25, 2019
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
An investigation into the lack of a bomb shelter in a temporary nursery school in the village of Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee has revealed that more than 200,000 residents in the Mateh Asher Regional Council’s confrontation zone – from zero to nine kilometers from Israel’s northern border – lack protection in their schools, medical clinics, old-age homes and kindergartens from rocket attacks.
Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Hezbollah launched close to 4,000 rockets and wounded 1,400 civilians in 34 days, the Mateh Asher Regional Council, along with other councils and municipalities in the North, have teamed with the IDF’s Home Front Command in a project called Migun HaTzafon, or Northern Protection. They have been pressing the government to fund the building of proper protective rooms, and to upgrade existing shelters. The government pledged five billion shekels beginning in January 2019, with a payout over the next 10 years, but the money has yet to be transferred.
Regional councils had threatened a nationwide strike on Thursday, November 6, but it was called off when the government promised to deliver an initial NIS 132 million by December 31, 2019. According to Mateh Asher spokesperson Yael Shavit, the top priority for use of the funds will go to Rosh HaNikra, Arab el-Aramsha, Hanita and Adamit, situated right on the northern border. The Mateh Asher region has 32 settlements stretching east from the Mediterranean coastline, including kibbutzim, moshavim and Arab villages, and 16 of these are located within the vulnerable confrontation zone. Most crucially, Shavit said, “Between 25% to 60% of them lack appropriate shelters.”
“The potential warheads that could hit Israel today are much heavier than they were in the 2006 war,” said David Vaknin, the head of the emergency preparedness team in Kibbutz Matzuva, a community that is close to the northern border.
According to the Home Front Command, communities in the confrontation zone have a certain number of seconds to get to a shelter once a warning siren is sounded. The rocket attack is imminent: some residents in communities might have 15 seconds to seek shelter; Matzuva residents have to find shelter immediately.
“Zero seconds,” said Dr. Galit Vaknin, a veterinarian from Matzuva and David’s wife. “When we hear the siren and when the bomb goes off is the exact same time. We have zero amount of time to protect ourselves.”     
The Home Front Command instructs children and other residents in these “zero zones,” or in places without protective rooms, or in places where the existing shelters are not nearby, to stay where they are, lie on the floor under tables, and cover their heads.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Jackie Horvitz, a resident of Shavei Zion and a mother of two children who are enrolled in the local nursery schools. “Israeli law states that when you build a house, you must build a protective room, so why doesn’t that same law apply to a nursery school with children?”
THE TEMPORARY nursery school was built in Shavei Zion after a population explosion from a new neighborhood in the area. Residents had the choice of waiting two years while the Education Ministry built a permanent nursery school, including a protective room, or to erect a prefab, ready-made gan in three months. Residents chose to receive a temporary gan, for which the law states that the government does not have to supply a protective room.
“A protective room would cost 170,000 shekels, and no one has that kind of money in their budget,” said Orit Guri, head of the Shavei Zion education committee and a member of the Shavei Zion local government. “It’s a terrible situation.”
In the past, a neighborhood bomb shelter was sufficient for residents because they could go there and stay for “one night or two, and that was enough,” said spokesperson Shavit. “But the threat from Iran, Syria and Lebanon might make a war go on for longer, and people can’t stay in a shelter for that long.”
Plans are now underway to build escape routes for residents in some communities along the northern border so they can leave in case of attack, and so the IDF can enter. There are also emergency evacuation plans if Hezbollah, for example, takes over a northern community. There are eight communities that might need to be evacuated during a war. Municipalities in the center of the country, as well as in Jerusalem, have already agreed to take in residents fleeing from the North.
Residents in Shavei Zion express anger that the regional council would allow a nursery school to be built without a proper protective room. They are also concerned that the children won’t be able to reach the existing bomb shelter, which also serves three other nursery schools in the community. Shavei Zion residents have 30 seconds to find shelter. The existing shelter would take five minutes for an adult to reach from the new nursery school; it would take frightened toddlers in an emergency situation far longer.
“It is not a realistic amount of time to get to a shelter,” said Shavit. “And we can’t rely on the present calm because it’s all explosive.”
There are currently around 60 nursery schools in the Mateh Asher region without protective rooms.
Shavei Zion resident Horvitz said if the Education Ministry funds the building of a nursery school, it is on condition that if after a few years the population drops, the community cannot do anything else with the building.
“It becomes a white elephant,” Horvitz said. She wondered why the Education Ministry does not allow communities to transform the nursery school building into a multi-use facility for local residents, something that is routinely done by communities in the United States and elsewhere.
IN RESPONSE to a Magazine inquiry about the fact that 200,000 Israeli residents lack protective rooms and shelters, the IDF Spokesman’s Office responded, “The IDF Home Front Command is Israel’s national guiding body in the field of defense by virtue of the 1951 Civil Defense Law, according to which all homes, residential buildings and industrial buildings in Israel are required to be equipped with bomb shelters. Its role, by virtue of the Civil Defense Law regarding bomb shelters, is to direct the construction of proper shelters that comply with standards, to oversee local authorities regarding the maintenance and standards of these structures, and to carry out projects according to allotted budgets.
“A plan to map out which locations lack proper protective shelters was initiated this year and details regarding which cities lack necessary infrastructure has been assembled. Nonetheless, the Home Front Command is not the government body responsible for allocating funds, and each municipality is responsible for providing its residents with proper shelter.
“It should be noted that in the beginning of 2018, the Home Front Command commenced an extensive shelter renovation project in northern Israel, and so far 800 public shelters have been returned to complete service. In addition, dozens of protected spaces have been built in schools in conjunction with local authorities.
“The IDF attaches great importance to the task of assuring that outlying communities in Israel’s periphery have well-maintained shelters available to the public, especially in the North. To this end, the IDF is working closely with local authorities and the appropriate bodies to achieve this goal.”
When this response was sent to the Mateh Asher Regional Council, the spokeswoman responded, “We are working in cooperation with the Home Front Command to ensure the security and protection of residents. We are urgently waiting for the budgets to be allocated for the plan so we can begin to put it into action.”
WITH THE current tense situation, residents express concern and apprehension for the future.
“Where we live is like Europe,” said Dr. Vaknin. “We have the mountains and we have the sea, but we also have the fear.”
Like her husband, Dr. Vaknin is also part of the emergency preparedness team, assigned to take care of the wounded during a war.
“I’m so scared when I drop my son off at the gan because there is no protective room,” she said. “There won’t be enough time for the children and teachers to reach the bomb shelter. We often hear explosions here, and even the dogs and the cats get scared.”
The writer is the author of several books, including The Mom Who Took off On her Motorcycle, a novel, A Remarkable Kindness (HarperCollins) and The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, which was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She lives with her family in Shavei Zion.