When word first hit our news bureau at the Christian Embassy sometime last March, it was quite alarming. A Christian nurse working as a volunteer at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem tipped us off that Israeli medical and emergency teams would be using the large soccer field at nearby Teddy Stadium as a mass triage area - part of a mock drill simulating a barrage of enemy missile-strikes.

No officials would confirm the report at the time, but the exercise eventually did take place in May - one of many such national-emergency drills that Israel has held over the past year. The unprecedented series of exercises have become so common-place they no longer have any shock value. The most recent of note was the world's largest-ever simulation of a biological attack on the crowded Tel Aviv and Gush Dan region, which was closely monitored by hundreds of crisis management professionals and experts who had flown in from abroad.

The heightened civil preparedness is because Israel over the past decade has been confronted by enemies deliberately targeting its civilian heartland, first through a brutal Palestinian suicide bombing campaign that lasted five years and killed over 1,000 Israelis, and then in two recent rocket wars - with Hizbullah in the north in 2006 and then against Hamas in Gaza last winter.

The simulations have sought to improve the interaction between a number of government and private emergency response agencies, including the army, police, border guard units, fire and rescue teams, medical personnel from area hospitals, health officials, EMTs from Magen David Adom, and the wide network of trained ZAKA volunteers, among other 'first responders.' All the nation's schools and major institutions have been involved. The drills have focused on a variety of potential threats, including nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.

'We are always preparing and staying one stage ahead in order to deal with the possibility both of terrorist attacks and rockets that have been fired at us,' Micky Rosenfeld, Israel's national police spokesman, recently told The Christian Edition. 'We have to make sure that both our Israeli police units, those personnel that are on the front lines, as well as the public are fully prepared and capable of dealing with any situation.'

Rosenfeld notes that Israeli police units are unique in that they must not only deal with traffic violations and common criminals, but 'at a moment's notice when the sirens go off they must also put on their gear and be fully capable of dealing with a rocket attack.' The typical policeman knows Kassam rocket ranges and how to identify different grades of explosives and warheads, and they are informed of the latest terror warnings from military intelligence and the Shin Bet security agency.

Because of mandatory army service, many ordinary citizens can defuse bombs and take down terrorists. But it is the growing threat of massive rocket barrages, perhaps with non-conventional warheads, that has the nation scrambling to prepare its civilian population.

The head of the IDF Southern Command, Gen. Yoav Galant, recently warned that the year-long quiet in the south may be over soon. And the presidents of both Syria and Turkey have just warned Hizbullah that Israel plans to attack Lebanon in the spring - surely disinformation, but the sort of fodder that could easily spark a fire in the Middle East tinder box. And this time, Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to join in, bringing Syria's vast missile arsenal and its deadly stockpiles of nerve agents into the equation.

While no one can predict with certainty if conflict will again break out in 2010, the looming Iranian nuclear threat has everyone on edge, trying to calculate how the effort to stop Teheran from possessing a Bomb might play out.

THE YEAR 2009 closed with several sobering disclosures that erased any doubts about Iran's nuclear weapons program. First, a site was exposed last fall near Qom housing enrichment facilities built inside tunnels carved into a mountainside. The plant was nearly complete and, suspiciously, it was of a size fit for only one use - advanced enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.

Then in December, a British paper revealed that secret Iranian documents had been uncovered detailing a project to test components of a nuclear trigger. Thus, even the Obama administration no longer believes the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Teheran had put its nuclear arms program on ice.

Updated assessments by Western intelligence agencies now reveal that Iran will likely achieve 'breakout' status in 12-18 months - meaning the capability to produce a nuclear bomb within six months once a political decision to do so has been taken.

This has led to mounting pressure on Israeli leaders to begin preparing for the worst. There's no telling what Iran might do to protect its atomic program, including starting diversions elsewhere in the region which could spin out of control.

In their initial encounter at the White House last May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly gave US President Barack Obama a pledge to hold off on any pre-emptive military action against Iran until the end of the year, to give the new president's offer of dialogue with Teheran a chance to bear fruit. That informal deadline is now past with no diplomatic breakthrough, and so critical decisions must now be made.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened to impose 'crippling sanctions,' which most experts feel should take the form of a ban on the import of refined petroleum products back into Iran - a move that could paralyze much of the nation. But recent reports indicate the White House is rejecting such proposals, and will opt instead for a narrow set of punitive measures that does not harm the masses but rather targets the regime and its primary insurance policy, the Revolutionary Guards (See story on Page 16).

Regime change has also become a more viable option, considering the massive demonstrations in the wake of the rigged presidential elections last June. While the opposition has no single recognized leader, many figures appear willing to weather sanctions affecting the entire nation in the hope that these will turn the public even more quickly against the ruling clerics and the Revolutionary Guards.

Regarding military strikes, however, the consensus seems to be that while targeted air strikes on Iran's nuclear sites, the Revolutionary Guards and the regime's centers of power could be quite helpful to the opposition, a broader military campaign that inflicts mass civilian casualties will drive the people into the arms of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

In Washington, the Pentagon is reported to be at least drawing up plans for US military strikes, but many analysts see the Obama administration moving to a containment strategy. This alternative has Israeli leaders worried, as they fear a nuclear Iran - whether 'contained' or not - would start an ominous arms race in the region while itself becoming more bold in using its terror proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas to strike at Israel. It would not be beyond Iran to enable these militias to inflict mass casualties.

In the north, Hizbullah has already been re-supplied by Iran and its ally Syria with over 40,000 rockets and missiles - three times as many as it possessed before the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006. Meanwhile in the south, Hamas has used the 'quiet' of the past year to rebuild its arsenals, smuggling in longer-range rockets through tunnels from Sinai, and increasing the range and payload of its own homemade rockets. Both militias now claim to have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv.

These arsenals would certainly be unleashed should Israel decide to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. There are sharply differing opinions, however, over just how long the IDF alone could set back the Iranians. US officials have suggested as little as six months - an estimate likely meant to deter Israel from striking and less the product of an intelligent assessment.

Israel's own strategic experts doubt that the air force, vaunted as it is, will be able to sustain the sort of three-week bombing campaign necessary to shatter all of Iran's fortified nuclear sites.

Risking unilateral military action could also send shock waves through the oil markets, destabilize the region further, induce Iran to accelerate its nuclear drive, and invite retaliatory terror strikes on Israel that many world leaders would say Jerusalem brought upon itself.

Nevertheless, one thing is sure; both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are determined to prevent Iran from bringing a second Holocaust upon the Jewish people. And both believe that Israeli forces could set Iran back several years.

Still, most Israeli experts say the pair will give sanctions a chance, and indeed Netanyahu has been advocating tough sanctions for several years now. But will even tough sanctions have the deep and immediate impact needed to move the clerical regime off its current course?

Whether the threat of an Israeli attack is serious or not, during a November visit to China Obama used the image of Israel turning cowboy to try to persuade Beijing to lift its objections to stricter sanctions. China has billions invested in Iran, and is increasingly dependent on Persian oil, but it also realizes that this supply could be disrupted if the IDF takes action.

Over the past year, Israel has openly signaled it has the capability to take on Iran. The IAF has flown war planes westward out over the Mediterranean on long-range practice missions as far as Iran is to the east.

Meanwhile, on the home front, civilian preparations for a rocket war are in full swing (see related stories). The state-of-the-art missile defenses the nation will rely on have been fully tested. In the Juniper Cobra joint military exercises in October, the US and Israel each contributed 5,000 military personnel for a huge dry run on defending against incoming Iranian ballistic missiles. The unparalleled drill tested the layered anti-missile systems of the Arrow III, the Patriot III, the Aegis sea-borne system, and the THAAD high-altitude interceptor, while successfully integrating America's new X-Band radar with the IDF's Green Pine radar.

Israel's brand-new Iron Dome system for defending against short-range rockets also passed a week of rigorous testing in early January, and the IDF is expected to begin deploying the units near Gaza by May.

In short, a renewed and expanded rocket war is a real possibility, and could inflict many civilian casualties. No one is taking that threat lightly, given that twice in the past three years, Israelis have woken up to find themselves in just such a rocket war.

*This article appeared in the April issue of the Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition,
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