After three years of preparing northern Israel for the calamities of war, Col. Arik Elazar, the outgoing commander of the Home Front Command’s Northern District, will soon be in Paris, where he will serve as an IDF attaché to France, Spain and Portugal.
Elazar spoke to The Jerusalem Post this week, in the last days of his tenure as district commander, about the state of civil defenses in the North.
His sector is the closest to Syria and Lebanon, and is in the firing line of tens of thousands of Hezbollah short-range rockets, as well as a growing number of terrorist organizations in neighboring Syria.
A resident of the Jezreel Valley, Elazar spent a quarter of a century in military service – in special forces.
He started out in the Duvdevan undercover elite unit, then commanded Oketz K-9 Unit. Elazar was later appointed commander of the Counter-Terrorism School, before heading the Personnel Security Training Center. He subsequently became commander of the Center for Air Transport and Special Training (known by its Hebrew acronym, Marhom), near the Tel Nof airbase, where special units subordinate to IDF General Staff are trained.
Elazar also studied during this time. He graduated from the IDF’s Command and Staff College and earned a degree from Haifa University.
Three years ago he became northern district commander of the Home Front Command.
“When I took up this position, I faced a whole new set of challenges. I put the sword to the side, and picked up the shield,” he said, describing the transition from offensive combat to the world of civil defenses.
“This is the front that has been chosen by Israel’s enemies as the next big target in any future clash, he added. “All of our enemies understand that they will not defeat us militarily. They therefore seek to target the home front, and hit our civilian sector.”
The largest of the Home Front Command’s six districts, the northern district, covers 74 local authorities.
Twenty additional regional councils, located close to the border with Syria, are under the direct jurisdiction of the IDF Northern Command, which instructs them on matters such as when to keep farmers away from the international frontier.
Some 1,100,000 people live in the district (and 200,000 residents reside in the border strip controlled directly by IDF Northern Command).
“This is a highly diverse sector. More than half the population isn’t Jewish. There are Muslim, Circassians, and Druse communities. The area is characterized by low-rise construction and villages,” Elazar said.
The district is divided into three sub-districts, each served by a brigade of reserve soldiers who specialize in civil emergency responses. Sub-districts are headed by a Home Front Command officer at the rank of colonel.
The largest sub-district, Amakim, encompasses 35 local authorities, and is served by three reservist battalions.
“We are a reserves Command,” Elazar said.
Although the Home Front Command has four battalions of conscripts at its disposal, the core of the command’s personnel are its 10,000 reservists, he said. They are proficient in responding to civil emergencies, as well as basic infantry skills.
In any scenario involving large-scale rocket attacks on northern Israel, it is these reservists who will be using specialized equipment to dig through wreckage in built up areas to rescue trapped victims.
They are also trained to deal with unconventional attacks, although senior IDF officials assess that the risk of such incidents actually occurring is negligible.
“Every sub-district commander builds up his area’s capabilities,” Elazar said. “They will know how to react in emergencies.”
Part of Elazar’s efforts have focused on creating close ties with civilian bodies, from regional councils to the emergency services – police, paramedics, and firefighters.
“I want a sub-district commander to be able to call a mayor, and for the commander’s number to be recognized by the mayor’s cell phone memory,” Elazar said.
Referring to the deadly gas tank explosion that tore through a residential building in Acre in February, killing four, Elazar said that incident served as a test for the Home Front Command’s operations.
He recalled how, just before 2 a.m., he was woken up with news of the blast, and mobilized key Home Front Command officials to the scene, while making his own way to the blast site.
“We received the command over the inner circle of rescue operations,” he said, “and began gathering community intelligence, to find out who was in the building, and where they were at the time of the blast.”
The information-gathering included details about a couple that lived in the building, which had argued minutes before the blast. The husband went to sleep in the living room following the dispute, and rescuers focused their searches there.
When worried relatives arrived at the scene of the building and demanded to be allowed to take part in the searches, Elazer ordered his forces to give them hardhats and vests, and allowed them into the blast site.
Elazar’s view is that local volunteers will form a critical response in any mass rocket and missile attack.
This approach has fueled a program, launched by the Northern District, to get local authorities to train teams of between 20 to 40 civilian volunteers in search and rescue techniques.
The teams will be called upon in any large-scale emergency, since it would take a considerable amount of time for the Home Front Command to mobilize its forces to all affected areas.
“I won’t be able to get to every location immediately in a war. That’s why we believe in training specialized teams to begin working without the professional help of rescue battalions,” Elazar said. “The volunteers act as force multipliers. In the coming year, we will seek to maintain their readiness through more training.”
Another focus has been improving relations between the Home Front Command’s firefighters and the civilian Fire and Rescue Service.
“For every ‘blue’ [civilian] firefighter, there is an orange [the official color of the Home Front Command] firefighter,” Elazar said. “They train together, and carry out joint specialized operations,” he said.
Every year, the Home Front Command holds emergency drills, involving all emergency responders. It practices using command and control programs to coordinate rescue efforts, and uses a computer simulator that generates virtual rocket attacks on populated areas.
Despite the progress, Elazar acknowledged that there remains a gap in levels of civil defenses between Jewish and Arab regions.
Arab areas remain particularly underdeveloped in terms of rocket- roof safe areas in homes and bomb shelters.
“There still is a gap. In many villages, there are no safe areas. But every new construction project includes standardized safe areas for new homes,” he said. “We’re also working on mapping out villages that have no street names. We are adding layers to our command and control programs, and numbering homes, so that we can get to them quickly if needed. At the end of the day, there’s still a lot left to do.”
Elazar expressed hope that local Arab authorities will cooperate with the Command and draw up the necessary preparations. “The local authority heads understand that the responsibility is on them. I can help them help themselves.”
“We’re far from being perfect. There’s still a lot to do,” Elazar said. “Local authority heads need to find the right pace of preparations, and continue to build cooperation with us.”
Elazar will soon begin a course for military attaches, before moving to Paris with his family later this year.
“The diplomatic arena is very different from what I’ve done so far. But the past three years have helped prepare me for this,” he said.