Israel was unprepared for the massive attack that paralyzed life in the north

(6 August 2006) - THE HEAD of Home Front Command, Major General Yitzhak Gershon, sent the citizenry a nice-looking booklet yesterday that contained explanations and instructions on how to behave during an alarm, in bomb shelters and in secure areas. The Home Front and the local authorities are "prepared and trained throughout the year to deal with emergencies," Gershon wrote, and signed it with the slogan "strong in the rear, victorious at the front."

For those who received the booklet, and especially those who browsed through it while crowding into bomb shelters in the north, it is hard to agree with these consoling and calming statements. Over the past weeks, it has become clear that the entire pyramid of government -- from the prime minister to the Home Front Command, and including ministry accountants and legal advisers -- was unprepared for the massive attack that paralyzed life in the north of the country.

The lack of preparedness was reflected in all areas: Essential public buildings were not fortified; bomb shelters were not prepared in advance and proved to be unsuitable for people to live in for more than a few hours; and the food and water supply system, public transportation and support systems for families whose homes were destroyed are all collapsing under the strain of events. The army leadership now claims that they knew all along that Hezbollah had been accumulating long-range weapons that could strike large population centers, but despite the warnings of a few diehards, not even minimal investments were made in fortifying and preparing bomb shelters.

Moreover, even on the eve of the decision to embark on a military operation, the prime minister refused to declare a state of emergency and did not set up an emergency ministerial panel to expedite assistance for civilians and make it more efficient. The result: an overwhelming feeling that the leadership has abandoned the public.

The population that is paying the war's heavy price is divided into two: the weaker section, stuck unprotected or in inhuman conditions, and those who moved to the center of the country and are forced to manage on their own. If a state of emergency had been declared, it would have been possible to operate civilian systems backed and guaranteed by law, to keep orderly records of evacuated families, and to meet at least some of their needs. The void left by the state's inaction is being filled by nonprofit organizations and commercial groups, which are using their generosity for publicity and marketing.

It is now too late to declare a state of emergency. The temporary ordinances that some Knesset members managed to legislate do minimize the losses of workers and employers in the north, but the war has only begun to exact its civilian price: the closure of the companies that will collapse, and the damage to tourism and investment, will claim a heavy price for a long time after the crisis in the north has ended.

The slogan "strong in the rear, victorious at the front" rings hollow. Since January 1991, given the hundreds of terror attacks and the proven connection between war and peace, on one hand, and the socioeconomic situation on the other, Israeli governments should have known that the distinction between the rear and the front is no longer relevant. The citizens sitting in airless bomb shelters; the employees of community centers and local municipalities, hundreds of whom are still owed months of unpaid government wages; the staff of the Ministry of Education's psychological services; and even youth movement counselors -- all of these are now on the front lines, and none are receiving backing from the state.

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