Yesterday, more than 265,000 children across southern Israel returned to school after enduring several days of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. However unappealing the tedium of the classroom may be for many of them, most are nonetheless surely happy that the risk of attack has dissipated, at least for now.
Indeed, scenes on television in recent days of Jewish children crouching in fear, terrified at the prospect of an incoming explosive projectile hurtling in their direction, were difficult to watch. Gone was the usual exuberance and enthusiasm that is normally associated with Israeli youth. Instead, their young faces were taut with tension as they huddled and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, none were injured, as the Palestinian terrorists' aim is as misguided as their ideology. And Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system proved effective in intercepting dozens of incoming rockets. But the recent round of violence exposed a critical weakness in Israel's home front defenses, one that requires prompt and immediate rectification: the lack of adequate public bomb shelters, especially in the nation's schools.
Take, for example, Beersheba, the largest city in the Negev.
According to Deputy Mayor Dr. Heftsi Zohar, there is an acute shortage of protected areas in the city's educational institutions.
"Most of the schools in Beersheba don't have enough shelters or safe areas," she told The Jerusalem Post, adding that, "most have secure spaces, but not enough."
Zohar added that she is not aware of any government plans to construct additional bomb shelters in the city. A friend living in Beersheba, Professor William Seidelman, confirmed this.
"My wife and I live in a newer apartment with a protective Mamad [sealed room]. But our children and grandchildren, like most Israelis who live in older housing, do not have access to this protection," he said. "One of our daughters and her family are at least five minutes from the nearest shelter."
Usually, people have less than a minute after the siren sounds to get to safety.
Residents of Ofakim confronted a different problem when their town came under attack. To their dismay, they discovered that the bomb shelters in their city were filthy and unsuited for long stays in the event of a prolonged crisis.
As one Ofakim resident told Ynet, "When we opened the shelter doors it was awful. It's dirty here and it stinks, the toilets aren't working, and some of the people are sleeping on pieces of fabric instead of mattresses."
To be sure, no one expects a public bomb shelter to resemble the presidential suite at the St. Regis hotel. But if the government and municipal officials do not maintain shelters and keep them clean and well-stocked, it will only deter citizens from seeking them out when they need them most.
The lack of public shelters isn't the government's only failing when it comes to protecting the civilian population. Overall, the situation is more dire than most of us realize. MK Ze'ev Bielski, chairman of the Knesset subcommittee that deals with home front defense, recently put it quite bluntly: "The home front is not ready."
Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Bielski said that improvements have been made since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, but he described the current situation as "not good," pointing out that 1.7 million Israelis still have no access to any kind of physical protection. That is one out of every five people in the country.
Worse yet, a whopping 40 percent of the public do not have gas masks, and the government only has an additional 1 million masks in storage. This means that if a war were to erupt, over 2 million Israelis would not have masks in case of a chemical or biological attack.
"It is the responsibility of the government to provide basic protection for its citizens, and the government is not fulfilling its responsibilities," Bielski correctly noted.
Given the likelihood of a conflict with Iran in the upcoming year, it is more essential than ever that the government take immediate steps to bolster the preparedness of the home front. Professor Seidelman of Beersheba suggested a number of simple yet urgent steps that the government should take, which include surveying all existing shelters in public spaces and buildings to assess their readiness as well as ensuring they are accessible and habitable.
Proper signs need to be put up, with proper markings and directions in multiple languages, to guarantee quick and easy access. Maps highlighting public shelters should be distributed to every household and the information should be made available on the Internet as well. Moreover, the government needs to invest in building additional shelters, with priority given to schools and kindergartens within rocket range of Gaza.
It is simply inexcusable that after all these years of ongoing Palestinian attacks, the residents of the south still do not have suitable protection. The nation can ill afford to be ill-prepared, particularly since the next war could see rockets coming at us from Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north and Iran to the east.
This will put Israel's entire home front at risk, unless we act now with foresight and prudence.