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1 Jun, 2009 06:14

Israelis alarmed over lack of shelters amid defense drills

Israel is holding its largest ever civil defense exercise this week. Authorities say the purpose of the drill is to check to what extent emergency services and the population are ready for a real missile attack.

The alarm has already been raised about the number and location of bomb shelters, should they come under attack.

For 34 days, Rajaa Obaid-Metanes’s family lived in a kitchen. It was the only protection they had against Hezbollah missiles falling outside during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Some landed a few meters down the road, killing two people, and there was nowhere to hide. Rajaa believes that a shelter might have saved them.

“Twenty people lived in my kitchen because it’s the only room with strong walls. But even if we wanted to build an extra room, there’s no space. Besides, the Israeli government would not allow us to. You have to have a special permit,” Arab Israeli citizen Rajaa Obaid-Metanes says.

Many Arabs in Israel sympathize with the country’s enemies, even though almost half of the Israeli civilians killed in the Second Lebanon War were Arabs.

Reem Hazam took matters into her own hands. She set up an Arab emergency response centre to lobby the Israeli government for more shelters. Reem accuses it of protecting Jewish communities at the expense of Arab ones.

“Those neighborhoods were built after 1948, were built in the last twenty, thirty years, but most of the old Arab neighborhoods have been standing there for over a hundred years, sometimes, over seventy years, and therefore they do not have any shelters, they do not have any safe rooms,” Arab emergency centre coordinator Reem Hazam says.

In 1991, the Israeli government tried to deal with the problem by insisting that new buildings have bomb shelters, but it’s not much help to most of the Arab population.

“Any Arab Israeli city or village or community within the vicinity of Israel is of course under Israeli jurisdiction. Naturally, the home front command cannot go to Palestinian cities and treat them, but there is a big Palestinian authority that is receiving money from Israel and other countries as well, and I believe they should bear responsibility for these kind of things,” Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Major Avital Leibovich says.

This week Israel holds its largest-ever emergency response exercise – but it is clear there are nowhere near enough shelters.

Things are not much better on the Jewish side. Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, a local resident, admits that neither his town – no his country – are ready for an attack, which is why he collects money to build shelters.

“The awareness is there, the actual physical shelters might not be, and their conditions might not be at a level you might want to stay in for any length of time,” Rabbi Shmuel Bowman says.

The drills fuel speculation that Israel has plans to counter the Iranian threat. Although it’s nearly three years since war last came to her front door, Rajaa and her family are no better off. If war breaks out again, she’s likely to be right there in her kitchen.