Government: Snow response was proper, lives were saved
The most intense storm since 1992 may have passed, but the blame game has only begun • IDF armored vehicles help clear roads, soldiers knock on doors and provide relief, but thousands left without power • PM: We handled storm better than other countries.
Shlomo Cesana, Yori Yalon, Lilach Shoval, Itsik Saban, Edna Adato, Mati Tuchfeld and Gadi Golan
IDF Armored Personnel Carries help clear the way in snow-covered Jerusalem, Saturday
Photo credit: Reuters
Four stormy days -- the worst since the winter of 1992 -- are now behind us. Israel is slowly returning to normalcy.
More than 10,000 Israelis were still without power early Sunday morning, with some major roads still closed pending further reassessment.
Only thanks to Israel Defense Forces armored personnel carriers and other heavy equipment were the main arteries in Jerusalem and the north (especially Safed) rendered serviceable. The Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway was reopened late Saturday night, but as of Sunday morning, only public transportation and supply vehicles were allowed. Route 443, which connects central Israel to Jerusalem's northern neighborhoods, remained closed as of Sunday morning but might be reopened.
The IDF worked together with the Israel Police to help citizens who had been stranded on the various highways over the weekend. IDF soldiers could be seen canvassing entire neighborhoods in Safed and Jerusalem, knocking on doors and providing relief: food, heating pads, and water. Some eight APCs helped clear snow and in some cases towed vehicles that had been left on the road.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a special briefing on Saturday along with a host of officials, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Israel Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Yohanan Danino. Netanyahu noted that the first-responders were duly prepared for the storm. He stressed that the quality of the response in Israel surpassed that of other nations who had experienced similar weather-related crises. "In other countries such a storm usually has a death toll and involves a much longer paralysis," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu praised the police for diverting traffic away from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway throughout the storm. "This was a lifesaving decision," Netanyahu said. "This was a severe development that is a result of climatic behavior; it happens once every 100 years; our first and overarching priority is to save lives."
The Prime Minister's Office dismissed calls for a probe into the authorities' response and pointed out that the damage was not as bad as what other storms inflicted elsewhere. In February 2013, it said, a snowstorm on the U.S.'s eastern seaboard resulted in the deaths of 18 people, with more than 500,000 people left without power for six days.
Danino deflected criticism of the police's supposed lack of preparation, saying, "I am well aware of the criticism, which is very characteristic of who we are as a nation and of Israel in general; of course the experts are having a field day, especially because TV programming is dedicated to this. I have this to say: Stop whining and let's all join forces to help the people of Israel lead a normal life once again."
President Shimon Peres extended his support to the security forces and the Israel Electric Corporation technicians, and added that he was worried over the power outages and damaged infrastructure. "Let's not sugarcoat the criticism, if there is any, but for now, I am filled with pride over what the authorities have been doing," Peres said.
With many in Jerusalem unable to leave the city, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett instructed officials in his office to approve any request to keep services open on Shabbat. As a result, Israel Railways extended its hours of operation in Jerusalem on Friday evening and had trains running on Saturday.
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira said his office would scrutinize the measures taken by the authorities in anticipation of the storm and review the degree to which they were coordinated in their response. Over the weekend, Israelis in Jerusalem and the north said the government was ill-prepared for the storm and as a result of that they were left stranded on the nations' highways and their homes were without power for protracted periods. "This problem affects the entire nation," Shapira told the press.
Shapira said he would launch this probe as early as this week. The Jerusalem Municipality and other localities will be scrutinized, as well as the Israel Police, the Public Security and Homefront Defense ministries, the various social services, the Energy and Water Resources Ministry, and the various public transport services. The State Comptroller's Office will enlist the help of its Special Roles Division as it collects data and interviews public officials in the hope of figuring out who is to blame.
Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, who took part in the special briefing in the Jerusalem City Hall, said that the authorities were not caught off guard. "We should stop making decisions that are based on the fear of a commission of inquiry," he said. "There was no incompetence; every event involves a lesson-learning process in which we try to better ourselves; the storm surprised us because of its magnitude, but the response was rapid."
Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen also dismissed the notion that there was a systemic failure on the part of the state. At a social event in Beersheba over the weekend, he said that "no one could expect such a storm; here in Israel we have a tendency of not taking responsibility; we keep asking who is to blame. The state comptroller has already said he would look into the conduct of the Israel Electric Corporation. New York City had a power outage for three weeks because of a storm in the past. Although the snow has its own romanticism, this snow is problematic as it causes power lines to rip apart." He stressed that the only thing that needs to be looked into is why the power grid failed.
Opposition Leader MK Isaac (Buji) Herzog (Labor) criticized the government and the prime minister, saying that "Israel has a National Emergency Authority that was set up to handle such events. Why was it not activated on the spot? It was supposed to coordinate the response among all the authorities and make the necessary preparations. There are special guidelines that were approved by the cabinet; why were they just ink on paper?"
The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee plans to hold a series of meetings to review the conduct of the local authorities and the first responders. Committee Chairwoman MK Miri Regev (Likud-Beytenu) said in a statement Sunday that "Israel cannot afford to let people stay without power for protracted periods and in severe temperatures; the state has the resources to do things better. ... We will see what lessons can be drawn so that what happened in Jerusalem and Safed does not recur; having a situation in which Jerusalem is under siege for almost three days and thousands of people are without power and cannot leave their home is just unacceptable."
MK Eli Yishai (Shas), who heads the Homefront Preparedness Subcommittee, said that "it is abundantly clear that the government of Israel did not anticipate such a storm nor did it expect such an impact; however, it must be prepared to handle the forces of nature, particularly because the winter has only begun."