Volunteers - Israel at its finest

Comptroller says efforts by private sector helped overcome "vacuum left by government authorities."

One ray of light in the otherwise grim assessment of the state of the home front during the Second Lebanon War was the spirit of volunteerism that swept the country. "The enlistment of the private sector and voluntary organizations to help out during the war substantially helped overcome the vacuum left by government authorities," wrote State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss in a report released Wednesday. "We should not spare our praise for the outstanding expressions of volunteerism on the part of organizations that made contributions and volunteer organizations and individuals who 'cared.' Their contribution during the fighting was the epitome of the spirit of brotherhood, solidarity and shared fate. It was the epitome of the essence of the good and beautiful Israel at its finest." Having said that, the state comptroller sharply criticized the national and local governments for failing to properly exploit this spirit. "We found that the authorities did not take measures to organize the aid in an orderly way and to direct it to the places that needed it most," wrote Lindenstrauss. The state comptroller found that there were 300 NGOs, business enterprises and individuals who contributed to the population in the North or to soldiers at the front during the war. Beyond that, innumerable individuals made their own personal contributions of one kind or another. Lindenstrauss estimated the value of the contributions at close to NIS 1 billion. However, he criticized the local authorities for the way they handled the contributions that came in the form of money, electrical goods, games, food and many other items. The state comptroller found that the local authorities did not itemize all the gifts they received or keep a proper record of them. As a result, they did not always know how the gifts were distributed and who did or did not receive them. The local authorities did not provide proper storage for the gifts, which included television sets and air conditioners, and did not have a qualified staff to service them. They also distributed items to residents without knowing who needed the gifts and who did not. In some cases, the local authorities did not use the gifts for the purposes they were meant for. The state comptroller found that neither the government ministries nor the local authorities worked together with the volunteers and therefore could not tell them what they needed. The volunteers carried out much of the work that should have been done by the local authorities, wrote the state comptroller. For example, they sent basic necessities such as food. Volunteers also distributed the food to shelters or homes. Both should have been done by the local authorities. The responsibility for evacuating civilians from the war zone belonged to the government. But since the government decided not to evacuate anyone, it was the NGOs and individual volunteers who helped residents find places to stay outside the war zone. Volunteers also helped provide supplies for the bomb shelters to make it easier for residents to live in them or at least remain in them for long periods of time. "An examination of the areas of activity of the voluntary organizations and their scale, compared with the functioning of the government authorities in the same areas, show us that the volunteer activities made up, even if partially, for the failures of the government authorities, who were caught unprepared to provide a satisfactory solution to the needs of the northern residents during the war," wrote Lindenstrauss. He also noted that volunteers provided operational equipment, medical equipment and even weapons to the fighting forces. This help was extended in response to appeals from individual officers and soldiers who complained about the lack of such items in their units.