A “high school” in Holon’s impoverished Jesse Cohen neighborhood was a crumpled
mass of concrete and twisted metal on Sunday morning, the result of “a 7.1
earthquake” in the North, a disaster of biblical proportions simulated by the
army, police and paramedics.
This week’s drills are meant to test
responses to a disaster causing thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of
injuries, and displacing more than a hundred thousand people.
collapsed faux high school was the center-piece exercise on the first day of
Turning Point 6, an annual nationwide drill designed to test the home front’s
readiness for a natural disaster, or in terms more close to home, a massive
missile and rocket attack on Israel’s vulnerable civilian core.
years past, if you were not serving in the IDF Home Front Command or the police,
a journalist covering the exercises, or a civilian passing one of the
simulations, you would have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of the
The day began with an “earthquake” in Eilat followed by
a larger one moments later in the North. Government offices took part in the
drills, while schools on the coastal strip evacuated pupils to open areas as the
simulated quake rattled the country and wrought a tsunami that sent 10-meter
waves crashing onto the coast.
On north Ben-Yehuda Street near the port
in Tel Aviv, a group of high school students made their way back from an
evacuation spot on Ussishkin Street next to Hayarkon Park. A teacher said the
students were taken to the spot because it was an open area, and have been
instructed in the case of a tsunami to head for higher ground at Dizengoff
As a catastrophic earthquake would likely cause a tsunami, it was
unclear why students would be evacuated to the banks of the Hayarkon River,
which would presumably rapidly flood surrounding streets, or whether or not
Dizengoff Center would still be standing after the quake hit.
confusion of that scenario was common during Sunday’s drills. In the North, the
simulation included a post-earthquake tsunami flooding the area of Haifa Port,
where presumably locals would be asked to flee to higher ground. At the same
time, a tsunami could wreak havoc on Haifa’s chemical plants and send toxins out
in the open where civilians would be instructed to gather.
what to do in such a case, the head of the Home Front Command, Maj.- Gen. Eyal
Eisenberg, said simply, “In the first phase [of an earthquake] we ask people to
leave the buildings, but if we see there are leaks... of dangerous chemicals,
we’ll give other instructions.”
He did not say whether people would be
asked to go to underground bomb shelters to escape the toxins, at the same time
the streets above are flooded by the tsunami.
Repeatedly during the drill
in Jesse Cohen, leaders such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak talked about how the
exercise would not only help prepare the country for an earthquake, but also for
what Barak called “more practical scenarios, such as missiles falling on central
A glancing look at that rationale leaves more questions than
answers. While the evacuation of wounded civilians from a collapsed building
would presumably be the same if it was felled by an earthquake or a missile, how
could the instructions for the civilian population be the same? In an
earthquake, as was repeatedly emphasized Sunday, the instruction would be for
citizens to go outside, but if rockets are falling, civilians are supposed to
run as quickly as possible for a safe room or a stairwell, assuming there is one
Regardless of how impressive some of the rescue personnel on the
concrete piles may have been Sunday, the exercise begs the question: How many of
the Israelis stuck inside those buildings would survive a quake? The great
majority of homes in Israel were built before 1980, when earthquake codes were
not in effect, and before the 1990-91 First Gulf War, when safe rooms were not
mandatory in house construction.
This seemed apparent to Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, who, along with his comments on Iran about the importance of
stiffer sanctions and a credible military threat, said Israel must find ways to
increase “evacuation-rebuilding” (pinui binui) projects, to demolish and replace
older buildings in neighborhoods like Jesse Cohen across the
Whether or not progress is made on such ambitious home front
protection programs before Turning Point 7, without a massive, nationwide
program to retrofit these buildings it is safe to assume that in the event of a
powerful earthquake in a decaying neighborhood like Jesse Cohen, most of the
buildings will pancake moments after the quake, giving many residents little
chance of surviving.