chemical war drill 224.8.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
American-Israelis who came of age in the 1950s and '60s will be old enough to remember taking part in regular air-raid drills during school hours. This involved crouching under a desk or against an interior wall, placing your head between your knees and covering your face with your arms - a defensive posture known as "duck and cover."
That this was standard practice for years in the most powerful nation on earth attests to the Cold War fears and tensions on the American home front over the threat of intercontinental Soviet missiles stored in silos a hemisphere away.
Over the next four days, Israelis around the country - in schools, offices, hospitals, factories and, of course, military installations - will be practicing the ol' duck-and-cover, both literally and figuratively, as they take part in "Turning Point 2," the largest-ever-civil-defense drill in Israel's history. It is the first time an emergency exercise of this scale has been carried out here - but it surely won't be the last, reflecting the evolving nature of the strategic threats Israelis must now contend with militarily, and to a certain degree, on the level of mass psychology.
The ostensible purpose is to test the readiness and effectiveness of the IDF Home Front Command and the new civilian National Emergency Authority - dubbed "Rachel," an acronym of the Hebrew reshut herum leumi - set up in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. That conflict exposed the weaknesses in the ability of Israel's military and governmental bodies to contend with the consequences of a large-scale missile attack,
That was a laxity perhaps understandable (although not excusable) given the dramatic change the war represented in a strategic situation that had been largely unchanged since the founding of the state.
While Israelis certainly know what it is like to live in fear of imminent attack, rarely have they watched the skies in apprehension. For six decades, since the fledgling Israel Air Force knocked out the Egyptian planes on their way to bomb Tel Aviv, our mastery of the air has been taken for granted. Only the residents of the northern Galilee in range of Katyushas from Lebanon knew what it was like to live in dread of a sudden aerial attack.
That changed briefly when Saddam Hussein launched his Scud missiles from Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. But Israel, both its citizenry and the military and civilian authorities who should have known better, failed to take those events as a proper warning sign, perhaps rationalizing the continuous rain of missiles on Tel Aviv as largely the result of the political constraints that prevented the IAF from taking pre-emptive action against Saddam and his Scud-launchers.
As a result, bomb shelters were left neglected, emergency procedures were forgotten, drills were nonexistent, and our fears were focused far more on the bomb on the bus than on the missile from the sky.
Any illusions that the home front could rest secure in the knowledge that the duration and impact of any missile attack would be relatively short and geographically contained was shattered during the summer of 2006.
The IDF's failure to knock out Hizbullah's launchers; the shock that its rockets ranged as far as Hadera and Beit She'an; the inadequacies of the Home Front Command and confusion of the civil authorities in dealing with the situation; the lack of clear procedures to secure such sensitive areas as the Haifa Bay industrial zone all highlighted a lack of readiness that reached from the very highest of official levels down to the confused reactions of ordinary citizens.
This wasn't war as we knew it, in no way comparable to the Scuds that hit during the evening on Tel Aviv and Haifa during the Gulf War. But with Hizbullah now having reportedly restocked its missile arsenal, with Hamas upgrading its rockets to reach ever farther north from Gaza, and most ominously, with Syria and especially Iran largely investing their military spending in long-range missiles, it certainly looks increasingly like war as we will know it, from here on in.
Thus, "Turning Point 2" is an aptly chosen name for the drill that will take place this week - a turning point at the very least in how Israelis should perceive, and prepare for, the next war, if and when it comes.
There is concern that the scale of this exercise will raise tensions with Lebanon and Syria, especially coming relatively soon after the assassination of Hizbullah terror master Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February. Certainly, given current circumstances, the government and military must take care to conduct the drill in an open and measured manner, so that it projects an aura of readiness, rather than an air of provocation.
Certainly the last thing the IDF wants is a repeat of the botched military call-up exercise of 1959, dubbed "The Night of the Ducks" (after one of its code words), which sent the Syrian army mobilizing to its borders with Israel, and became a costly embarrassment to our security establishment.
But in this case, better a few days of duck-and-cover than finding ourselves once again sitting ducks for enemy missiles.