Operation Lifeshield: Saving Lives While Building Bridges

Dedicating two shelters at Regba, where “Lone Soldiers” from outside Israel are housed

For over a decade, Operation Lifeshield has provided above-ground bomb shelters to Israeli communities under threat from missiles launched from Lebanon and Gaza. With the “kite fires” from Gaza in the last few months, the small organization has added firefighting to its resume.

Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, executive director of Operation Lifeshield, spoke at several locations in the United States this summer, including ResLife Church in Michigan, which has donated and co-donated close to 100 shelters through Operation Lifeshield.
He told the church “Israel was hit by over 180 rockets from Gaza in less than 48 hours this week. Your shelters were heavily used, and protected thousands of innocent civilians.”

Operation Lifeshield began in 2006 during the second Lebanon war, to provide accessible above-ground bomb shelters in northern Israel, “so people could get into them and then out of them in a reasonable amount of time.”

In recent years, the focus has turned to Gaza, which was taken over by Hamas in 2007. Every so often, Hamas launches a campaign of firing missiles at random into Israel. For those living in communities near Gaza, once an alert is sounded they have just seconds to reach a bomb shelter.

Missile attacks force “Auschwitz decisions,” Bowman said. If the sirens go off and you have 20 seconds to get to the shelter, your five-year-old is in one part of the house and the six-year-old is on the other side, who do you grab on the way out?

The organization also places shelters in Muslim Bedouin communities near Gaza. “Rockets don’t know the difference between Jewish and Arab communities,” he said.

Bowman said most Gazans “would much rather be living peacefully,” and there is tremendous potential for Gaza. It has “some of the nicest beaches you would ever find,” and natural gas off the coast, he said. But Hamas isn’t allowing development of Gaza to happen. “That’s the message the world isn’t hearing.”

When Gazans oppose Hamas, the terror organization that rules the area, there are severe consequences. Bowman referred to video of a father of a family being pulled out of his home, tied to the back of a truck and dragged through the streets to his death, and people being pulled from hospital beds and being thrown off the roof.

In the recent border riots, demonstrators burned 45,000 tires, then complained when Israel refused to allow the importation of more tires. Israel petitioned the World Health Organization, citing the long-term damage to Israelis and Gazans alike, but the WHO refused to get involved.

Leaders in the region by Gaza and Sinai tell the group to keep the shelters coming. As an example, a music school near Gaza, which serves underprivileged students, can’t expand until they have additional shelters.

Operation Lifeshield works with local officials who have the final say on where to put the shelters.

Being above ground, the shelters are easily accessible for anyone, from the disabled to the parent who is carrying children.

One of the shelters is a 35,000-pound “bell” shelter that is “lightweight” enough to be put anywhere using a crane.

In addition to the concrete shelters, they have steel shelters that are even lighter and have a capacity of about 25. They have an open entryway — if there is a door, what do you do when the door is closed and someone is outside asking to be let in — do you expose those already in the shelter to danger?

The biggest concern isn’t a missile hit, Bowman said, it’s the shrapnel spray that causes the most damage, so from the shelter’s entrance there is a turn to shield those inside.

The shelters are thoroughly tested. As Bowman put it, “we literally blow them up” and hit them with rockets.

A new challenge is the kite fires, with Gazans attaching incendiary devices to kites, helium balloons, birds and helium-filled condoms, and launching them into Israel to start fires randomly wherever they land.

The fires “start immediately, and they are big,” Bowman said. “You can’t run fast enough.”

Operation Lifeshield has started placing portable firefighting trailers in communities — a 700-liter tank that can be towed by a pickup truck.

Because wildfires grow exponentially, “if you can put out a fire within 15 minutes, you drastically reduce the damage it can do.”

Operation Lifeshield was the first organization to distribute the trailers, and now it is just them and the huge Jewish National Fund. “It’s something I never expected to do,” Bowman said, adding that they have done 10 trailers thus far.

A fire trailer costs about $15,500. Concrete shelters are $21,000 and steel shelters are $22,000. He quipped that the shelters are “a concrete thing” people can do to help Israel.

A recent major project for Operation Lifeshield helped Livnat Kutz, who founded Beit Malacha in Sha’ar HaNegev, near Gaza, after working for Intel in Israel. Bowman explained that the stress of living under constant threat of missile attacks has led to first and second grade students in the region being unable to learn basic concepts. “These children are growing up in trauma,” he said.

Beit Malacha uses art and creativity to teach those basic concepts, reaching 150 students a day. But not long ago, the Israeli military shut down the program. Since it was on the second floor of a building in an area without a shelter, in a zone where response time to a missile launch would be just a few seconds, not long enough to get students downstairs, they had to close.

Operation Lifeshield brought in a company that specializes in shelters, fortifying Israeli embassies around the world in an unobtrusive manner.

In many places around the world, the location of Israeli installations are not known to the public, so to fortify such anonymous spaces, one can’t draw attention by bringing in heavy equipment or unusual materials. The company has developed fortified materials that resemble normal building materials.

They converted a corridor on the second floor to serve as a bomb shelter, enabling the center to reopen.

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Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, Jerome Baxley of Alabama and Livnat Kutz at the shelter built for Beit Malacha’s learning program in Sha’ar HaNegev.

It was such a large project that four sponsors were needed, Bowman noted. Two of them are from Alabama — the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s World Jewry Bureau, and the Baxley Companies of Dothan.

Noting that one donor was Jewish and one was Christian, Bowman said “we actually do bridge the communities of the Jewish and Christian world… in a project we all can really care about.”

Baxley Companies have donated a dozen shelters in Israel, including two at Moshav Regba, in northern Israel less than 10 miles from the Lebanon border. The shelters are by a building that houses Lone Soldiers in Israel, soldiers from around the world who have no relatives in Israel to rely on.

Bowman said he did not realize this beforehand, but he had a cousin from Canada who was housed at Regba and would benefit from the shelters. She was given the honor of unveiling the dedication plaque.

Jerome Baxley, who attended Bowman’s talk in Birmingham, said he went to Israel several times on Christian tours, but wanted to go over and do something tangible for the people of Israel. He volunteered with the Hesed program of the Friends of Israel Ministry, working at an Israeli hospital.

During one of his first volunteer trips, there was a ceremony dedicating a shelter that Friends of Israel donated, and Baxley met Bowman. Upon returning to Alabama, Baxley decided to start supporting Operation Lifeshield.

Alabama’s Shoals community is also involved, under the leadership of Rev. Jim Bevis of CRS Ministries. Bevis is coordinating the dedication of a shelter from the area, seeking 170 individuals to commit $100 each. Florence Mayor Steve Holt provided the first gift, and Jewish community member Adolph Abroms was the second.

Bowman said he would love to report that Operation Lifeshield isn’t necessary any more, but “I’m afraid that’s not the case.”

He said despite the constant threats, Israelis don’t live in fear. “We live in preparation,” having “as normal a life as possible in an abnormal situation.”

Operation Lifeshield is “a boring organization,” Bowman said. “We just save lives.”

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