It was Col. Eitan Yitzhak’s last day in the military after 28 years in service.
He sat back in a chair at the Home Front Command’s headquarters in Ramle,
thinking back over his long career.
A man whose job it was to think about
the worst eventualities, and who was charged with creating life-saving systems
to respond to them, will surely find civilian life very different from the path
he has taken this far.
Asked what his future steps would be, Yitzhak said
he was “more into observing [his future options] than deciding at this
Careful examination before making important decisions appears to
have been a key tactic for Yitzhak, a tool that he used skillfully to prepare
vulnerable areas of the country for an onslaught of enemy rockets and
For the past nine years, he has built up the Home Front
Command’s Southern and Haifa Districts, bringing his experience from frontlines
battle roles to the job of protecting civilians.
Before that, Yitzhak
served as the commander of the IDF Southern Command’s Engineering Corps, a role
that saw him tackle volatile terrorist threats in Gaza. He lost 11 fellow
soldiers during this time.
When Israel left Gaza in 2005, Yitzhak helped
lead a project to set up an advanced fence running along the border with the
A year later, in 2006, he would witness the Second Lebanon War
break out, and Haifa being pounded by Hezbollah rockets, as local authorities
and the Home Front Command failed to deliver proper responses to suffering
residents. But he watched these events from the South; the time to remedy these
failures had not yet arrived.
In 2008, Yitzhak left the frontlines and
joined the Home Front Command, as commander of the Southern District. His move
came at a time when the rocket threat from Gaza increased
In the year of his appointment, Gazan terrorist factions
extended the range of their rockets from a few kilometers to 45, covering cities
like Ashdod and Beersheba.
In a single year, the number of southerners
living in rocket range grew from 10,000 to a staggering 1 million.
realized the Home Front Command had to change. It was set up in the 1991 Gulf
War to deal with missiles carrying conventional and chemical warheads. It
remained fixated on an erroneous concept. It was ready for Scuds from Iraq, but
didn’t respond during the Second Lebanon War to Hezbollah rockets,” Yitzhak
Two months after taking up his post as Southern District commander,
the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The goal was to damage Hamas’s
infrastructure, following unceasing barrages of Palestinian rocket attacks on
Yitzhak found himself in the middle of the
As rockets rained down on southern Israel, he moved forward with
a new combination of responses.
“I recruited reserves on behalf of the
Home Front Command, activated local councils, worked closely with emergency
services, government ministries, and factories,” he recalled.
cross-agency approach would prove to be the key to a new Home Front Command
“We made adjustments throughout the conflict. By
safeguarding the home front, I allowed the OC Southern Command to focus on the
enemy. We released him from the responsibility over civilians, thereby realizing
the vision of the Home Front Command’s role,” Yitzhak said.
model continues to resonate today. Yitzhak’s approach is based on the concept of
To succeed in a battle arena, the various components of an
army’s ground forces need to coordinate with one another, and with the air
To produce a successful home front response, the same thing needs
to happen. The various agencies need to work together, from Magen David Adom
paramedics, to police, to firefighters, to local authorities, to the Public
Security and Environmental Protection Ministries, Yitzhak explained.
new model had been created.
In 2010, the IDF decided to reverse a mistake
and recreate a Haifa District in the Home Front Command.
prior to the Second Lebanon War, the Haifa District had been merged with the
Northern District, forming one of several obstacles to proper wartime responses
during the 2006 conflict.
The old northern district was too large and
vague in its responses to wartime emergencies.
In 2010, after the Carmel
fire disaster, which killed 44 people and destroyed swaths of forests, the Home
Front Command concluded that Haifa needed its own district, if it was to
function in a future war in the face of thousands of incoming
Yitzhak moved to Haifa. He was aghast over the state of war
“The gaps I saw entering the position were very
significant,” he said. “I didn’t imagine the gaps would be so enormous.” He felt
the need to set up the district as soon as possible, since war could erupt again at any time.
This is especially true now, he said, as chaos sweeps
across the entire region. The various parties fighting each other will at some
point turn their barrels in Israel’s direction, he predicted. “It’s a question
of when it’ll happen, not if,” said Yitzhak.
Yitzhak embarked on a series
of moves he described as “aggressive,” to import his response model to the new
district. The biggest obstacle, he found, was a lack of trust among locals due
to years of neglect.
“The way to build up trust is to work together with
others. Not to tell them: ‘See you at the training session,’” he
“It’s not easy, arriving at the Bnai Zion Hospital on the ridge of
Mount Carmel, and being told by the hospital manager that the last time he saw a
Home Front Command official was before 2006,” said Yitzhak.
mayor shared his frustration with Yitzhak, recounting how, in the past, he was
told to show up for a critical training exercise, woke up early in the morning
and reported to the meeting point, only to find no one there.
later told in an offhand manner that drill was canceled.“There wasn’t even an
apology!” Yitzhak exclaimed, still brimming with surprise.
alone,” he continued.
“Trust has no taste or color. If I’m wanted, that’s
the sign that tells me they have trust in me.”
Yitzhak began by training
the general population for wartime responses. The drills allow civilians to
locate safe zones, and practice getting there quickly.
He created three
Home Front Command battalions for the Haifa District, which specialize in search
and rescue missions, as well as treating victims of war.
“Haifa is the
most threatened city in the country,” he said. “It’s the biggest metropolitan
area in the North. If Haifa remains strong, the whole northern region will
remain strong.” With its hospitals, industries, infrastructure and economic
hubs, the city’s role in upholding the North during a conflict is
“We started doing exercises that were never held there before.
We thought about war all year round, and held drills with all of the possible
forces [that would be involved in responding]. In Hadera, we did the same,” he
“It was like the Tower of Babel there. Everyone had their own
language. I brought everyone together, as I did in the South during
Operation Cast Lead.” All areas of the Haifa District have been divided between
various forces. Several contingency plans are in place.
Yitzhak feels he
can sleep easier now, as he exits the army.
Last year, he organized a
conference on war preparation, and invited everyone in the district. Factory
owners, firefighters, police officials, the heads of local councils and mayors
During the conference, the issue of how Haifa’s sensitive
petrochemical plants should respond to a missile barrage came up. The industrial
sites, filled with poisonous substances, have been threatened directly by
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in past speeches.
But Yitzhak said that
the dialogue he initiated illustrated “that this hot potato isn’t so hot. If you
train and respond correctly, the damage won’t be that big, even if the sites are
hit.” All factories working with chemical or toxic substances must have
extensive missile protection measures in place to receive a government license,
And firefighters are fully up to the task of entering a site
that was struck by a projectile and dealing with the emergency, making the area
safe for local residents.
If the general population knows to stay clear
of immediate contact with dangerous substances, it will not be harmed, Yitzhak
A second conference on such substances is set to go ahead in
Haifa the coming months.
“Hysteria is more dangerous than the threat
itself,” Yitzhak said.
Public hysteria alarms Yitzhak more than any
rocket or missile threat. He compares the risk posed by it to the actions of a
frenzied crowd at a soccer stadium. “Imagine an alarming rumor spreading through
the crowd, causing pandemonium,” he explained.
With all of the measures
now in place, hysteria is baseless, Yitzhak maintained. “There is no strategic
problem here. The Home Front Command knows what to do.”
focused his energies on getting the 10 Arab local council in his district – home
to some 200,000 people – to join the emergency preparedness world.“Our job is to
improve national readiness, irrespective of religion, gender or ethnic group.
The biggest gaps in emergency readiness were found among the Arab communities,”
he said, citing suspicion and cultural misunderstandings as
Yitzhak began making inroads by sending instructors to Arab
schools and training fifth graders on how to respond to emergencies. The
children in turn passed the knowledge on to their parents at home.
2011, he held a conference in Kafr Kara, where Arab mayors met the Home Front
Command for the first time.
In April this year, a second conference for
Arab officials was held, and it was met with a “100-percent attendance rate,”
Yitzhak said with pride.
Gas mask distribution points have sprung up in
Arab towns like Umm el-Fahm.
“I’m a person who believes with all my heart
that if one toils before Shabbat arrives, he will eat well on the Shabbat,” he
“Today, the system is in place. Now it needs to be
maintained and safeguarded.”