Neglected home front

To more adequately protect Israel's hinterland, the government must treat all threats as real and imminent.

gas mask 88 (photo credit: )
gas mask 88
(photo credit: )
In his special report last year on the lack of home front preparedness during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss minced no words. He heaped criticism on all concerned and described the neglect to which civilians in Israel's northern third were subjected as "a total eclipse." On Saturday, the former OC of the Home Front Command, Aluf (res.) Yitzhak "Jerry" Gershon, judged during an in-depth Israel Radio interview that "things today aren't much better." Buildings, he said, have still not been reinforced with bomb-proof additions; much of Israel remains inadequately protected against non-conventional attack, and the gas-mask kits collected back from the public have yet to be distributed afresh. Gershon, who two years ago was responsible for the then largely forsaken, shell-shocked civilians - and was harshly taken to task by the comptroller - complained in the interview about a "lack of seriousness during the war. Politics permeated all practical considerations and expedient politicians sought to reap personal advantage at the expense of all frameworks concerned." While Gershon's personal considerations may color his assessments, he is hardly the only one to warn that two years after that ill-considered and ill-conducted war, Israel's citizenry cannot rest easy and that it would be wrong to assume the home front failures have been corrected. MORE THAN a year ago, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee warned against the inordinately sluggish process of revamping returned gas masks. The committee noted that "it would be impossible to reissue the masks in time during an emergency." Recently, a new date, next January, was unveiled as the target for the upgraded masks' redistribution. As the tensions with Iran grow relentlessly, the delay is frankly unconscionable. This is but one example of what is either unwarranted complacency or plain incompetence. Israel now faces greater dangers than it did in 2006. For one thing, the failure of the war to push Hizbullah out of south Lebanon as a military force has led to its unprecedented reinforcement, with an estimated 40,000 rockets at its disposal (versus 12,000 in 2006). Since many of these are longer-range, more of the country is now in Hizbullah's potential shadow; many Israelis who were immune last time around could now find themselves battered. When this is coupled with Syria's arsenal, Iran's nuclear and conventional threats and the Gazan menace in the south, essentially all of Israel is vulnerable as never before, at least partially countering the IDF's firepower advantage. It would be wrong to claim that nothing positive has been done over the past two years. The Defense Ministry did set up the National Emergency Network - a preliminary step toward greater coordination in time of need. However, the overall response has been excruciatingly slow and short-term budgetary concerns have been allowed to overshadow existential long-range needs. THE BOTTOM line is that the civilian population still lacks adequate protection from a rerun of the 2006 scenario and would face potentially incalculable losses and demoralization - factors which would greatly impact on any future war's outcome. In improving that situation, there may be no choice but to involve the local authorities to a greater degree - granting them wider authority and financial wherewithal, under strict national supervision. Those who are in close contact with the citizenry in times of calm, after all, can most quickly aid it in times of crisis. Some local councils have, at their own initiative, already risen at least partially to the challenge. The past two years have featured lots of rhetoric, notably among Israel's senior political leaders, asserting a new calm in the North and suggesting that Hizbullah is thoroughly averse to further conflict. Indeed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed in an interview last weekend that Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah is "scared to death" of a repeat encounter. Unfortunately, many of Israel's citizens are also fearful - worried that they would be no better protected in the event of a new conflict than they were last time. Only now, Hizbullah constitutes a threat to a deeper swathe of the country. To more adequately protect Israel's hinterland, the government must treat all threats as real and imminent - as if the worst was expected tomorrow.