At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, air raid sirens will blast across the country and Israelis everywhere will rush to the nearest available shelter, in a large emergency readiness drill simulating an attack.
While every Israeli is being asked to take the drill seriously and rehearse evacuation procedures, tourists visiting the country will not participate. For 10 minutes following the sirens, the tourists will have the country to themselves, as everyone else will be waiting for the all-clear notice in their protected areas.
“We have issued notices to all the hotels and tour guides that tourists are not to take part in the drill,” said Tourism Ministry director-general Rafi Ben-Hur.
“Like all the other state authorities, the Tourism Ministry will be participating in the drill, but the tourists themselves are exempt. We have no desire to interrupt their visit and hope that the drill will affect them as little as possible.”
Ben-Hur explained that in the case of an actual attack, foreign tourists are on the top of the government’s priorities and that there are emergency protocols in place to have them transferred to safe locations and then out of the country within 48 hours.
He said that there are scenarios prepared for cases in which Ben-Gurion International Airport is closed and even if all air traffic in the country is frozen.
“During the drill, the Tourism Ministry will open a communications center and will simulate evacuation scenarios, maintaining contact with the Homefront Command as we would in a real-life event, but in order not to disrupt the visit of the visiting tourists, we won’t actually drill the evacuations,” said Ben-Hur.
Ben-Hur said that the aim of the ministry was to present Israel as a peaceful and appealing destination for tourists and that a large-scale military drill didn’t exactly serve that purpose.
“We hope that it will be felt as little as possible and that the tourists go home without feeling afraid or anxious,” he said.
Col. Chilik Soffer, head of the Population Department in the Homefront Command, said training civilians was critical for Israel’s preparedness for war and superseded the possible financial costs of disgruntled tourists.
“Every country in the world trains for emergency scenarios like earthquakes and fires. Here in Israel we train for those, as well as for enemy attacks. We have attempted to notify all incoming tourists that there will be a drill taking place by placing notices in the airport and in the hotels. We told them that there will be a siren and that they should not be alarmed and that all that is required from civilians is that they enter sheltered locations.
“Since the tourists themselves won’t be here in the case of an actual attack, there is no reason for them to take part in the drill,” said Soffer.
Soffer said that in the case of a real attack, the government had contracts with centrally located hotels to accept tourists evacuated from threatened regions, as well as a contract with El Al to evacuate foreign tourists out of the country.
He also said that state had an arrangement with hundreds of hotels across the country to host people evacuated from their homes due to a threat.
“We have 200,000 rooms in hotels and youth hostels all over the country for people who want to leave their homes, but have no alternative arrangements or family members they can stay with. We are also working on arrangements with local authorities to make up a list of families who are willing to take in people who were evacuated in their homes,” said Soffer.
“We saw that this happened naturally during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and aim to have it better regulated through the Homefront Command,” he said.
Israel Tour Guides Association deputy director Ariel Stolar said that the association had yet to receive notifications about the drill from the Tourism Ministry, but were prepared to explain the necessary precautions to their groups.
“I guess it’s simpler for them to let the tourists know individually
than to inform us about the drill, but regardless we will do our best to
explain the situation.
“When the siren goes off on Wednesday, I will explain to my group that
the have nothing to be alarmed about and since we don’t expect a real
attack, there is no reason for them to participate. If asked, I will
explain that Israel is a country under threat and explain the importance
of civilian preparedness,” said Stolar.
Spokesmen for the Dan and Isrotel hotel chains said that their hotel
security chiefs were cooperating with the Homefront Command and that
they will be participating in the drill, but assuring that it has a
minimal effect on the guests.