The Finance Ministry will invest NIS 5 billion over the next five years to refurbish and upgrade civil defense infrastructure in the north, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Wednesday.
The plan, to be called Defending the North, will provide funding to more than 300 local councils and municipalities located within 45 kilometers of the Lebanese and/or Syrian borders to shore up bomb shelters and early warning alarm systems, and will provide government assistance to home owners who want to build bomb-proof additions.
In all, some 500 public bomb shelters, 800 schools and kindergartens, 60 social welfare centers, hospitals and dozens of medical clinics in the north are currently unprotected or insufficiently protected in the event of a war with Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of some 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
Despite the investment, however, residents and local officials in the north said the defense establishment has neglected the region for too many years in favor of protecting residents of the Gaza Belt region in the south.
Since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, both civilian and IDF Home Front Command officials have warned that crumbling infrastructure in the north has left residents exposed. Now, they say the Ministry is trying to rush through a project to reverse years of neglect.
“We’ve been pleading (with the Ministry) since 2006 (to invest in civil defense infrastructure),” said Nissim Malka, the mayor of Kiryat Shmona, a city of 25,000 people located two kilometers south of the border with Lebanon. “But they’ve consistently said ‘nah, it’s quiet here. We’re going to focus on the south.’
“And so they did. We have 187 public shelters and more than 800 shared ones here. But none of them are in a state that could sustain people spending extended periods in them, as we are expecting in the next conflict. I’ll be as honest as I can about this: If war were to break out tomorrow, I believe we would be able to get our residents quickly and safely into shelters. But I don’t know what would happen after a day or two.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten drips and drabs of money (from the government) but they haven’t invested in security for the residents here. I hope it’s not too late,” Malka told Army Radio.
Members of the political opposition were more outspoken, saying Liberman’s plan would amount to little more than empty promises thrown at the country’s weakest region.
“It’s a pile of empty words,” fumed MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, saying that no funds had actually been earmarked for Defending the North. “Without a budget, all that is left is for government ministers to pass the buck and cover their asses.
“The north won’t be protected by plans sketched out on paper or by empty words. The biggest threat to Israeli civilians (is from Hezbollah rockets) and all this government can do is to do what it does with everything: Pass the buck. Liberman to Kahlon, Kahlon back to Liberman,” Shelah said.