'Shortcomings have been fixed, but much work still remains'

PMO director-general: Gov't "pulling its socks up" after last summer's war in North.

kids in shelter 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
kids in shelter 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
If another war were to break out soon in the North, the civil defense, social welfare, health, educational and other infrastructure would not be completely ready, the directors-general of five cabinet ministries and the Prime Minister's Office conceded on Wednesday. But, they said, the government had made "vast strides" in repairing the shortcomings that became obvious during the Second Lebanon War. Ra'anan Dinur, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, held a two-hour-long press briefing to mark the war's anniversary and to show the public that the government was "pulling its socks up" after the lack of preparedness and coordination that became so blatant during and after the war. Efforts to help residents of the South suffering under continuous Kassam rocket fire from Gaza were also discussed at the briefing. The other speakers were: Defense Ministry director-general Pinhas Buchris; Welfare and Social Services Ministry director-general Nachum Itzkovitz; Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav, Health Ministry director-general Avi Yisraeli; and Interior Ministry director-general Aryeh Bar, who just completed service as director-general of the Construction and Housing Ministry. Dinur said a team that he heads comprising directors-general and other senior officials meets regularly to monitor progress, coordinate and plan for the future. The emergency systems for coping with the needs of the home front, he said, were "significantly different" today that they were a year ago. A project for upgrading about 3,000 public bomb shelters from the line between Acre and Amiad northwards has begun, in addition to ongoing maintenance by the local and state authorities. In addition, tens of millions of shekels have been invested in installing and repairing sirens that warn residents to take cover; local authorities have been helped to train teams for assisting residents in an emergency; the Interior Ministry has issued regulations that allow owners of private homes to reinforce them against rockets; and the Defense Ministry has been given exclusive responsibility for the home front. Also, NIS 3.2 billion has been paid for rehabilitation and compensation to those who lost family members, property and livelihoods. An additional NIS 2.8b. have been allocated for "strengthening the North." Five centers for identifying and treating victims of post-traumatic disorder have been established by the Health Ministry in the North. And the Education Ministry has bolstered formal and informal educational frameworks for children; let 12th graders affected by the war retake matriculation exams; and provided eight hours per week of small-class size lessons for pupils in the area. In addition, thanks to the improvement in the economy and some direct intervention, the unemployment rate in the North has dropped by 0.4 percentage points. In Kiryat Shmona, for example, the jobless rate has fallen by 1.2 percentage points during the past year, to 3.1 percent, below the national average. The Interior Ministry has allocated NIS 600 million to local authorities in the North for improvement of infrastructure and equipment, and for training emergency staffers. Dinur said that a third of the funds had gone to Jewish areas, a third to those of Arabs and other minorities, and a third to infrastructure that benefited all residents. These are national averages, he said, but the Education Ministry spent half of the money it received on the neglected Arab sector. But when questioned by reporters, the Defense Ministry's Buchris conceded that if Israel was hit by a nonconventional attack, many people would not have suitable gas masks at their disposal, as it would cost hundreds of millions of shekels to rehabilitate kits given to all residents during the First and Second Gulf Wars. While kits had been collected from about 60 percent of residents in the center of the country and would be upgraded, many opened and expired kits remained in homes and were useless, he said. More are being produced, but this takes time, Buchris said. The Interior Ministry's Bar declared forcefully that some mayors in the North "left town" soon after the outbreak of last year's war. "In peace time, they claim they are in charge, but in an emergency, they cried to the central government and said they couldn't cope with all the demands," he said. Bar said that during the next decade or two, the "entire concept" of responsibility for government services - from civil defense and welfare to education and health - would have to shift to the mayors and chairmen of the local authorities. Itzkovitz, a former head of the Emek Hefer Regional Council, responded that while there was a need to increase the authority and responsibility of local government, the vast majority of mayors and council chiefs "did great work" during the war, and that it was unfair to tar them all with the same brush. He added that a growing number of municipalities had compiled updated lists of residents who were poor, disabled or elderly and need special help in an emergency. Yisraeli said important strides had been made in fortifying hospitals, but that it would take billions of shekels to make all of them safe for all patients, so the work could be only partial for the foreseeable future. However, underground and fortified facilities are being mandated in all new hospital wings, he said. Dinur said that large commercial facilities in the North were being encouraged, via building-space quotas, to construct public shelters. He confirmed that a coordinated information center to keep the public posted in an emergency and receive queries and complaints, and an Internet site were being established under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office.