Barak: Defense Ministry can't foot fortification bill

Gaza periphery residents call defense minister's visit to their communities 'electioneering.'

Sderot damage 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot damage 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A visit by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Gaza-border communities on Wednesday left locals disappointed after they were informed that while supporting a wide-scale rocket fortification program for the area, as proposed by the Home Front Command, the Defense Ministry could not foot the bill. "This looked like an elections campaign, with all of the handshakes," said Ophir Libstein, a resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza which is situated just across the Gaza border. "Barak said he thought all the buildings in the 4.5 kilometer radius of the Gaza border needed to be protected, but that the problem was with the budget... we expected to hear him say that immediate rocket fortification construction would begin." Libstein added "this has turned into a political struggle, and it is no longer based on principle." Libstein's sentiments were echoed by MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), also a resident of Kfar Aza. Hermesh filed a High Court petition against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other government ministers, including Barak, whom he blames for the delay in implementing the fortification program. "We realized a few weeks ago that no one seriously intends to complete the fortification," Hermesh said. "Instead of putting his hand into the budget and taking responsibility, Barak told the poor residents of the area, who faced thousands of Kassams: I will fight the government on your behalf." Hermesh described the vow as "laughable" adding that he has advised residents of the area "not to trust any politician who has come to make political gains off your blood." Of the petition he said, "I took an unprecedented decision, as a member of the ruling party, to petition the High Court to force the government to take steps," adding that the step involved "political risk for myself." Some 8,000 homes are situated within 4.5 kilometers from Gaza, and the Defense Ministry has concluded that they will not be protected by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system expected to be installed by 2011, Hermesh said, due to the fact that the system cannot cope with shelling of the area. In February, the Home Front Command decided on a three-step process to protect the area, beginning with the fortification of one-storey homes at a cost of NIS 327 million. Some NIS 260m. were earmarked for the second stage of fortification aimed at multi-storey buildings. The final stage was meant to cover all of the 11 communities situated within the 21 kilometers radius from Gaza. "Phase one is only starting now," Hermesh said, adding that May's intensive shelling of the area forced the defense establishment to scrap the three-stage plan in favor of the idea of fortifying all of the homes in a single swoop. "But no one is willing to pay," Hermesh said. An official at Barak's office furiously rejected Hermesh's allegations, saying the MK was "part of the problem rather than the solution," and accusing him of harboring "narrow political goals" and of "exploiting the distress of Gaza-border communities." "We are the ones who are helping the fortification process," the aide said. According to a second Defense Ministry official, Eitan Borshi, the Defense Ministry and Home Front Command were in charge of deciding how the fortification process should go ahead, but it was the prime minister and the Finance Ministry who were to blame for the problems in funding. "The government took a decision in February 2008 to fund around 3,300 housing units out of the 8,000 units in the 4.5 kilometer radius, at a cost of NIS 327m.," Borshi said. "But the funding for this comes from the Finance Ministry, and the project is carried out by the Construction and Housing Ministry." Borshi said it was "unfortunate" that the matter had reached the High Court, adding that the Defense Ministry fully backed residents' demands for fortification "before this reached the High Court."