Nov 30 2000

The burden of sirens in the PA

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

My friend Khaled Batrawi is a civil engineer working in Ramallah. I went to see Khaled on Tuesday night and found him frustrated with the weak internal response to the current situation. Among other things, Khaled is angry because he feels local officials of the Palestinian Authority are not doing enough to prepare Palestinians for the current onslaught of heavy mortar and missile attacks. 

Local municipal ordinance doesn’t issue building permits with the condition that the buildings have shelters. As a result, almost all Palestinian homes and apartment buildings simply have no place for people to go once shelling begins.

Khaled has met with the governor of Ramallah and other officials, and has suggested to them that underground parking lots be converted into temporary shelters by adding bathrooms and kitchens, as well as storage space for non-perishable items.

Radwan Shalbi is a musician and composer. He was at home, in his fourth floor apartment, with his wife and baby son last week during the shelling of Ramallah.

Without any shelters in the building the Shalbis simply decided to stay where they were and take their chances. They heard a loud thump on the roof but thought little of it. The next day the family went up to the roof only to find an unexploded shell; they are sure they would have been killed had it exploded.

There are many other such stories of people with nowhere to go when the shelling begins.

Another concern of Khaled’s is the lack of a siren with which to warn the public of an imminent raid. He worries that if – for any reason – Israel would shell a particular area in the middle of the night, for example, people might be killed in their beds as a result of failure to warn them to move to a safer location.

Sixty-four-year-old Hebronite Abdel Aziz Abu Sneneh was asleep at home when a shell hit his house, killing him instantly.

The idea of a siren seems surreal. Countries with proper borders use sirens.

Palestine is not a state, and by international law Israel is still responsible for the overall safety of Palestinians living under its occupation, albeit in enclaves controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Countries with sophisticated tracking devices can monitor the approximation of enemy planes, and sirens can be utilized to allow civilians ample time to reach shelter. We saw this when Scud missiles were fired from Iraq; and regularly when Katyusha rockets were fired at northern Israel.

Palestinians have no tracking or monitoring devices; they are in regular contact with Israelis through the liaison committees.

After the killing of the two Israeli soldiers in the center of Ramallah, Israel informed the Palestinian Authority of its intention to bomb their headquarters. This has previously been the drill, but with time such coordination has evaporated, and Israel is increasingly shelling residential areas without prior warning.

I have been so fascinated by the siren idea that I decided to pursue it with a number of PA officials. I called Sami, a former head of the east Jerusalem fire brigade, who has worked in Jerusalem as part of the Israeli national emergency network. He received training in Israel and in the United Kingdom.

Now retired, Sami has been asked by the PA to assist in the department for civil defense. He was appointed the number two man in the West Bank, and given a rank of a colonel in the Palestinian Police.

Since Sami was unavailable I spoke to his boss, Brig.-Gen. Abdel Hay Abdel Wahed, the director of the Civil Defense Unit in the Palestinian Public Security. Wahed welcomed the idea of a siren and said that he has been thinking about it but that he needed presidential approval.

“Why do you need President Arafat to approve something like this?” I asked.

Wahed explained that since sirens can actually scare people, they might be counter-productive. He also highlighted the need for distinct chimes for different emergencies. Wahed spoke of organizing a national training program in cooperation with local television and radio stations.

An electronic infrastructure system with a central command must also be put into place. With Gaza and the West Bank cut off from each other, this would be difficult, so it might be necessary to opt for a local siren system. Each city would be responsible for its own sirens.

I have no idea whether Brig.-Gen. Abdel Wahed will be able to get to President Arafat, and if he does, whether he will receive the approval and the necessary funding for the implementation of a national network of sirens, or even for local ones.

What is clear in my mind is that the Palestinian people are in no way, shape, or form ready for the kind of shelling that is taking place, sometimes daily, in and around most major cities.

What happened to 64-year-old Abu Sneneh and what could have happened to my friend Radwan and his family are nothing short of war crimes. Nevertheless, the burden today is no less on the Palestinian leadership to protect the civilian population from such criminal Israeli actions.

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