Disengagement puts strategic facilities in the crosshairs

jerusalem | Strategic energy facilities in Ashkelon and the water supply in the northern West Bank will be in attack range after the disengagement plan is carried out, experts told Knesset this week.

In addition, Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip will put 46 communities within 4.3 miles of the territory at risk of infiltration and rocket attacks, Home Front Command official Col. Uzi Buchbinder, told the Interior Committee.

Kassam rockets can hit the southern outskirts of Ashkelon, where there are two strategic power stations, the committee learned. One of them, the Rottenberg station, provides 22.5 percent of the country’s electrical supply.

Palestinians are not likely to aim rockets at power targets out of fear of damaging their own interests, the experts assessed.

National Security Council official Itamar Ya’ar, whose office prepared the disengagement plan, said that at present Israel does not have full-response capability to short-range rockets. He said the council is working on improving the warning system.

Yosef Draisen, a water commission official, warned that the Beit She’an and Jezreel valleys could dry up if Palestinians drill and siphon off water in the northern West Bank that has flowed into the area since ancient times. He said that “great damage” could be caused if drilling reaches depths of 1,000 feet, and a solution must be found to prevent the drilling.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, a plan to reroute direct sewage to the sea was halted after Israel threatened to hit the line, the committee was told.

Since the rockets are being improved all the time, Ashkelon’s southern neighborhoods or even its downtown could come under threat, according to Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri. At the Katza station, gas containers are stored above ground, not even a mile away from residents, he said. He warned that 5,000 to 10,000 residents could be in danger from Kassam hits.

According to Mehatzri, Asheklon will be harboring the majority of the country’s gas, which will be supplied from Egypt via a line that is to be built.

But Katza’s director-general, Emannuel Sakal, said fuel containers are underground and therefore there is a small risk if they are hit. He denied Mehatzri’s claim that the facility poses a threat to Ashkelon.

The Ashkelon desalination plant is totally unprotected, and it is not required to take precautions under the conditions set for the operators, another official said.

Yigal Ben-Aryeh, an official from the Israel Electric Corporation, said that until now electricity has been “kept out of the conflict.” But Ben-Aryeh, who is responsible for disengagement preparedness, said a hit on Rottenberg would also cut power to Palestinians in the Hebron area. He also emphasized that the station is already within the rocket range of 4.3 miles.

Committee chairman Yuri Shtern reacted angrily to Ben-Aryeh’s assessment, saying that Israel could not depend on the logic of Palestinians. “Do we have an understanding with Hamas?” he asked. The Palestinians were the main victims of the intifada, he said, but this did not stop extreme groups, he said, adding that some are “more rational than others.”

Ben-Aryeh said simulations carried out at the power station indicated that there would not be any damage or decline in power supply from a Kassam.

A high-security program is being planned for 17 of the 46 communities in danger of being attacked. The plan includes an electronic fence and armored vehicles, but funds for the project have not yet been budgeted. The Home Front can give residents only a 15- to 20-second warning of an impending rocket, “enough to run for shelter,” Buchbinder said.

Uri Naamati, head of the Eshkol regional council, said the quantity of Kassam attacks on communities near the strip could jump after the evacuation of settlements, which are the main target now for the rockets. “The number of rocket and grenade hits on Gush Kutif is 20 times more than what hits within the Green Line,” he said.