TEL AVIV — Israelis are debating the outcome of the war against Hezbollah, but they agree on at least one point: Their government neglected civilians during most of the 34-day conflict with Hezbollah.
As nearly 4,000 rockets rained down on northern Israel, many residents fled to the south. Those who couldn’t — including the poor, elderly, disabled or ill — were left to cope on their own.
The hardships were plentiful: Myriad bomb shelters were unfit for a month-long stay, lacking air-conditioners, electricity, mattresses or proper toilets; many disabled or elderly, alone because their helpers were too afraid of rockets to risk coming to work, couldn’t get to shelters, and basic needs could not be met, with banks, post offices, shops and medical facilities mostly closed.
According to a poll published August 11 by Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, 73% of Israelis believed that the government failed on the civilian home front. At times, it seemed that humanitarian organizations and philanthropists in Israel and abroad had stepped in for the government after hostilities started July 12.
“The government shook itself free from its responsibilities,” said Sharona Yekutiel, a member of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. Yekutiel led a group of volunteers to help residents in the north. The group spent $230,000 from a social assistance fund to supply food, toys and diapers to those huddling in shelters. The fund also helped pay for the evacuation of at least 1,000 people to central and southern Israel, as well as for their accommodations there.
Yekutiel said she’s still haunted by memories of the suffering she witnessed during the volunteer mission. She recalled finding an old man alone in one apartment, his entire shirt stained with blood from an open wound. In another home, the group encountered an 11-year-old boy caring for his blind grandmother. The group leader also recalled seeing people in wheelchairs who couldn’t get to shelters, and meeting the parents of children with Down syndrome, whose only help came from a local telephone hotline.
Families who couldn’t afford to leave the north protested the conditions of the shelters into which they crammed.
Mordechai Asor, his wife and 10 children crowded into a small shelter in the coastal town of Nahariya. To give their kids a hot bath, the parents warmed water in electric kettles and then poured the water into a bucket, according to a report on Yediot’s Web site.
“Whoever has money found his way out. Those who stayed are the socially inferior class,” Asor reportedly said with frustration. “I think my children are the real soldiers of this war. They’re fighting on the front line.”
Officials in northern Israeli cities and communities said that the blame for the civilian hardships goes to the government’s lack of planning and to its budget cuts.
Shlomo Bohbot, mayor of Maalot-Tarshiha (a border community with a mixed population of Arabs and Jews), said that northern Israeli towns lacked the funds needed to maintain shelters. He blamed the situation on the government’s decision to slash defense-related funds given to local government councils after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
In Kiryat Shmona, a city near the Lebanese border, about two thirds of the 24,000 residents left after the war started, many with the financial aid of donors or volunteer groups, Deputy Mayor Shimon Kamari said.
“The weakest part of the population stayed,” he added.
Alarmed by the predicament of northern Israelis, a group of prominent writers and rabbis — including A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz — urged the government to move into action.
In a joint letter published in Israeli newspapers and Israeli news Web sites, the luminaries called on the government to fill the currently vacant position of social welfare minister. They also urged the government to declare the hostilities a war situation and, in turn, activate the Defense Ministry’s Supreme Emergency Economy Board, an interministerial body charged with providing vital services to the population and economy during times of national emergency or disaster.
In a statement to the Forward, the Defense Ministry said that although the emergency board was not officially activated, its functions were carried out in some areas in the north. Such steps included supplying 40,000 blankets and mattresses to shelters, and issuing orders for 20,000 employees at vital public services to come to work.
The Defense Ministry also said that the emergency board would have overlapped with a special committee appointed by the government to handle civilian problems. But many say that the work of the committee, created more than a week after the conflict started, was a case of too little, too late. As an example, critics cite the government’s evacuation of several thousand northern Israeli families to a newly erected tent city in Tel Aviv — just two days before a cease-fire with Hezbollah started and more than a month after the hostilities broke out.
In contrast, just several days after the fighting began, philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian Israeli billionaire, funded and set up a tent city on the sand dunes of Israel’s southern coast to house thousands of residents fleeing the rockets in the north.
Some government officials conceded that their handling of the hardships could have been better.
“I have to be honest and say that I don’t think anyone expected the force of the impact on the home front, not in its intensity and not in its depth,” said Raanan Dinur, director general of the prime minister’s office, in an interview with Channel 1 television Monday. “That’s certainly a lesson that should be learned.”
For some, the mishandling of civilian problems seemed even worse in the face of discontent over the war’s military outcome.
Kamari, who in addition to being Kiryat Shmona’s deputy mayor is the father of Israeli soldiers who recently fought in Lebanon, said he felt let down because Hezbollah wasn’t defeated by Israel.
“I expected Hezbollah to get such a strong hit that it would have made all our suffering worth it,” Kamari said. “Then, I would have kept my mouth shut. I would have forgiven the government. But my disappointment is that this case remains open.”