ICEJ bomb shelter renovations

ICEJ “Sheltering” Residents in Northern Israel

By: Jonathan A. Parsons, ICEJ Staff Writer

As we set out from Jerusalem one morning this week to visit communities on Israel’s embattled northern border, the clouds were clearing from an overnight rain to reveal a beautiful, sunny autumn day. When our delegation from the Christian Embassy arrived three hours later in the town of Shlomi, you might not have known a war was on—that is, until we heard the piercing thunder of outgoing artillery rounds from a nearby IDF battery.

Shlomi is a town of some 9,000 residents nestled in the green hills of the western Galilee just below the ridge line that divides Israel and Lebanon. The newest neighborhood lies only 150 meters from the UN-demarcated border fence—and the prying eyes of the Hezbollah terror militia.

We thought Shlomi would be a ghost town after two months of intense artillery duels between the IDF and Hezbollah right along the border. But we could see numerous locals driving around town and even a few children playing outside as we arrived at the municipal building to meet with the mayor. This was not exactly what we had expected in such a dangerous combat zone.

Many city staff were back in their offices as we were taken up to see longtime mayor Gabriel Na’aman. He quickly thanked the ICEJ for helping his town over recent months by donating 9 portable above-ground bomb shelters and renovating 73 existing underground shelters.

“Ever since Shlomi was evacuated about 10 days into the war, around 5,000 residents are spread among 27 hotels in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tiberias, while the rest are staying with relatives elsewhere in Israel,” the mayor explained. “But 700 of our people, almost 10 percent, have returned to keep their businesses going only because the shelters you provided are here to protect us.”

“These shelters also helped our citizens stay safe for the first nine days of the war before we were able to evacuate Shlomi,” added Asaf Gaveh, the town’s security chief.

Back in April, Shlomi had been struck by a barrage of rockets from Lebanon on the first day of Passover, sowing panic in the town due to its lack of enough bomb shelters and the dire condition of those it did have. So the town’s leaders started pleading with the Israeli government and military for help, to little avail. But when ICEJ Vice President of AID & Aliyah Nicole Yoder heard of their need, she paid a visit, and within two weeks, the first of nine mobile bomb shelters was delivered to Shlomi. By the time of our visit this week, the Christian Embassy also had sponsored the complete renovation and upgrade of all 73 underground shelters in town.

“You worked so fast to provide these shelters,” said Gaveh. “The government has never done this.”

While the bomb shelters have helped alleviate some of their concerns over the rocket threat, Mayor Na’aman stressed another major threat is keeping more residents from returning right now.

“Our fear is not just that Hezbollah has a lot more rockets than Hamas but that their elite Radwan Forces have been planning to carry out the same massacres on the northern border as Hamas did in the south on October 7,” he stated.

The special Radwan commandoes number more than 2,500 veteran Hezbollah fighters from the Syrian civil war who have been training with motorcycles and paragliders to attack villages and take hostages just as Hamas did in the Gaza border area.

The mayor said he hopes for a diplomatic solution that will force Hezbollah back beyond the Litani River, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the Israeli border, as required by UN Security Council resolution 1701, passed after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Otherwise, he insists the only way for local residents to feel safe enough to return is if the IDF itself rolls into south Lebanon to push Hezbollah back above the Litani.

Mayor Na’aman shared that this was the message he planned to give directly to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant later that day in a scheduled meeting with regional council heads in the North. And indeed, Gallant emerged from that meeting voicing the same assessment.

After bidding the mayor farewell, we visited several refurbished shelters in Shlomi and then headed for Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a unique community of 22,000 located seven kilometers (4.5 miles) from the border. It is made up of two adjoining towns—one Jewish and one Arab—which decided to form one joint municipality as a model of cooperation for the whole country. With the ICEJ’s help, the town is in the process of refurbishing 67 public shelters—with 41 at or near completion and 26 still needing repair.

During our visit, we saw several shelters where the renovations were finished and others awaiting an overhaul. As in Shlomi, all of these shelters had fallen into disrepair since the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah and lacked proper lighting, ventilation, and plumbing, along with other major deficiencies.

In both towns, the main difference that stood out between the repaired and unrepaired shelters was the repulsive stench from mold and stagnant sewage in the untouched bunkers, which would make it impossible to linger there for more than a couple minutes, much less the two or three weeks needed during times of heavy bombardment. The finished shelters were heaven in comparison and quite comfortable for a lengthy stay.

In total, the ICEJ hopes to cover the repairs and upgrades for all 120 existing bomb shelters in the 2 towns we visited; we just need to raise the funds for the last 26 public shelters in Ma’alot-Tarshiha. These shelters are even being fitted with new water pumps, circulation fans, AC units, toilets, sinks, and showers—and for good reason.

“After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a study by Magen David Adom found that all the civilians who were killed during the war died because they left shelters with no toilets or broken toilets to go to the bathroom,” said Shmuel Bowman, director of our partner organization Operation Lifeshield. “That’s why I am so excited about these new bathrooms.”

Over the last 15 years, the ICEJ has donated over 200 portable bomb shelters to vulnerable Israeli communities, some 50 of them along the northern border. This includes nine additional mobile shelters now on order. In addition, we have now built or renovated some 125 underground shelters across Israel in recent years. These shelters have already saved many lives in the current conflict, and they help residents of these towns and villages have the courage and resilience to stay on the frontlines even in the hardest of times.

We offer our sincere thanks to those who have helped us provide so many lifesaving shelters to protect Israelis under relentless rocket fire through the years. We also urge everyone to consider what you can do to help us deliver more shelters to at-risk communities on Israel’s borders, starting with the remaining shelters we want to repair in Ma’alot-Tarshiha. You can do so by giving to our Israel in Crisis fund.

Please support our urgent efforts to help Israel prepare herself for future attacks.