Life-saving legislation

Every year, there are incidents of soldiers, farmers, shepherds and hikers entering minefields, sometimes with tragic consequences. The Defense Ministry’s new authority is finally getting the mine-clearing operation under way.

Daniel Yuval  (photo credit: Channel 2)
Daniel Yuval
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Last week, Israel took a significant step toward becoming one of the world’s most advanced and orderly countries. The Knesset passed the first draft of a bill to clear land mines. Within a short time, once the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee prepares the final version, the legislation will adorn our law books.
RELATED: Bumperstickers from Cairo (Premium)Egypt to opt for "demo-Islam (Premium)Who has the sovereign rights to the West Bank? (Premium) Power without responsibility (Premium)Egypt's Facebook Face-off(Premium)
The bill was deliberately brought to a vote exactly one year after 11-year-old Daniel Yuval, pictured, was seriously injured. The boy, his parents Tali and Guy, and his sister Amit, had taken a trip up north from their home in the center of the country to experience the wonderful landscape and freshly fallen snow. But their hike on the Golan Heights’ Mount Avital ended in disaster. Daniel stepped on an old mine that had apparently drifted years ago from a nearby minefield, and his leg was severed above the knee. His sister was injured by shrapnel.
The terrible incident brought an alarming reality to the forefront of public consciousness: There are numerous minefields across the country that no longer contribute to security and that instead endanger people’s lives.
Every year, there are incidents of soldiers, farmers, shepherds and hikers entering minefields. In the year prior to Daniel’s injury alone, several tragedies occurred: A Wadi Ara resident was killed when he stepped on a mine east of the Gilboa; an agricultural worker from Thailand lost his leg in the southern Golan after he stepped on a mine; a paraglider force-landed in another minefield, and miraculously escaped unharmed.
THE UNIQUE resonance created by Daniel’s injury was a result of the noble, heroic way in which he conducted himself when speaking with the media following the incident. His remarkable response transcended standard human nature. He had just experienced a devastating personal tragedy, but he did not sink into despair or frustration.
From his hospital bed, Daniel called on the responsible bodies to immediately act to prevent further injuries. He announced that he too would dedicate himself to this effort. There was no complaint or criticism in his voice, and no tone of self-pity. Most admirable was his display of leadership: A young boy, just 11, taking responsibility and rousing all the adults who hadn’t lifted a finger to neutralize a threat that was right under their noses.
Daniel was the catalyst that roused me as well. Only once I began to delve into the issue did I discover the gravity and scale of the phenomenon. I found that there were thousands of minefields in this country that ceased to be of security value years ago. Conservative estimates put the number of unnecessary mines at a quarter of a million, while others put the number twice as high. The mines are planted over an area that covers an entire 1 percent of the country – more than 33,000 dunams of open area and agricultural land. The highest concentration is in the Golan Heights, the Arava and along the borders, especially in the North and the Jordan Valley.
I also learned that in 1999 the state comptroller examined the issue and noted that although hundreds of minefields were no longer essential to the country’s security and constitute a potential threat, no one – not in the security establishment, not in any other government body – had instituted a proactive policy for clearing them. The State Comptroller’s Office recommended that the prime minister “appoint an interministerial committee to examine all aspects of the matter and formulate a government policy for resolving it.”
More than a decade has passed. The committee was never established, the matter was never thoroughly examined, no comprehensive government policy was formulated – and Daniel Yuval, like many others, paid the price of the negligence.
THAT WAS the background to the bill I initiated several months ago. All the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee helped advance it. Seventy-three MKs signed the bill when it came before the Knesset.
At the center of the proposal is the idea of establishing a mine - clearing authority within the Defense Ministry – a professional body that will prepare yearly and multi-year plans for clearing all non-operational mines across the country. The authority would determine the priorities, budget the clearing process – from government funds and external aid – and work with international companies that have acquired expertise from clearing tens of millions of mines throughout the world.
The idea of establishing a law to clear mines is not an Israeli invention; many countries have passed similar laws over the past few decades. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and England are just a few of the notable ones. Less developed countries have also been wise enough to take action: Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cambodia have all successfully cleared enormous numbers of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that were scattered across their territory during the wars they suffered.
In our region too, several countries have met the challenge. Between 1991 and 1995, Kuwait cleared at least five million mines that polluted its lands following the Iraqi invasion and the Gulf War. Over the past decade, Jordan has cleared almost all the mines buried in its part of the Arava and the Jordan Valley.
AFTER I left the Knesset in November, MK Ronnie Bar-On took on the responsibility of passing the new law. The current government, in contrast to all previous governments which were characterized by indifference, is committed to the new legislation. I believe that as a result of the rare cooperation between the Knesset and the government, and the opposition and the coalition, by the second anniversary of Daniel Yuval’s injury, on February 6, 2012, we will see the beginning of the mine-clearing operation carried out by the Defense Ministry’s new authority.
The writer is a former Kadima minister.