It’s only a drill, chorused the prime minister, the defense minister, his deputy and the IDF’s top brass. This is the fourth year in succession that we’ve held it, they all added. It was scheduled long ago, and has nothing to do with any flaring regional tensions. Israel has no desire for war. Israel’s heart is set on peace.
The message from Jerusalem, as the Turning Point 4 national civil defense exercise unfolded this week, was clear, emphatic... and partially accurate. This was indeed the fourth successive year in which such exercises have been held. The four-day drill was certainly scheduled long ago. And Israel emphatically has no desire for war.
But that siren wail on Wednesday morning? We’d be wise to take it very seriously. Yes, this was “only a drill.” But it was a drill predicated on acute concerns about the possibility of imminent conflict, and on grave assessments about how devastating such conflict could be.
No, we don’t want a war. And no, we hope there won’t be a war. But if there is a war, runs the mantra in full, it could be one that hits the home front like no war before it. Israel’s enemies are investing everything they have in their capacity to target Israeli towns and villages. If it comes, this could be the first war in modern Israeli history in which civilian casualties outnumber military casualties. And so we – not the army, but the citizenry – had better be ready.
TURNING POINT 4 was longer and more wide-ranging than its predecessors because the concern for the home front has been ratcheted up a good few notches since last year.
And it’s easy to see why.
Iran regards its asymmetrical missile-war strategy against Israel as a dazzling success. Via Hizbullah in 2006 and Hamas in the years preceding Operation Cast Lead, it has been able to target the ordinary people of Israel literally over the heads of the Israel Defense Forces.
Buoyed by that success, Iran, its proxies and its allies, are engaged in an intense and sustained process of missile refinement and deployment. Coordination between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas on the anticipated use of these missiles is unprecedented. They are pooling information, drawing conclusions from previous conflicts and formulating day-by-day battle plans. The Syrians would be disinclined to risk international condemnation by firing at civilians, and are therefore preparing to strike at military targets, with Iran’s proxy armies to north and south concentrating on residential areas.
As in our previous two major conflicts, Hizbullah and Hamas missile attacks would be launched from densely populated areas. Not because there are no open spaces from which to fire. There are, even in Gaza. But firing from open ground leaves you vulnerable, easy to identify and easy to thwart. Firing from near mosques, schools, hospitals and homes renders you hard to pick out and harder still to eliminate without causing wider bloodshed.
Having hoodwinked the world about who bore prime responsibility for all those Gaza deaths last time, there’s no question that Hamas, and Hizbullah, intend to repeat the trick. And there’s no question, as in the past, that Israel has scandalously elected not to invest sufficient efforts in the diplomatic, legal and media forums to expose them, and would therefore again be trounced in the court of world opinion.
WHERE EXACTLY might enemy missiles be headed? The facts are simple and stark. As recently as four years ago, Syria had perhaps 330 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, Hizbullah had fewer than two dozen, Iran maybe 50 and there were none in Gaza. By last year, Syria’s arsenal of missiles capable of reaching the Gush Dan area had soared to 1,300, Hizbullah’s to 800, Iran’s to 300 and even Hamas in Gaza had a handful.
And now? Today, Syria has an estimated 2,300 missiles that can hit Tel Aviv, Hizbullah has 1,200, Iran 400 and Hamas in Gaza has dozens. (Hamas test-fired a Fajr-5 – which can travel 80 kilometers – from the Gaza coast last October.)
The central Gush Dan area, home to more than a quarter of the Israeli population, could be hit – hit hard, and hit often – in the next war.
Some of the missiles arrayed against Israel, moreover, are extremely accurate. Jewish Jerusalemites can no longer assume that they are off limits. Missiles built by Syria and recently acquired by Hizbullah are accurate to within a few hundred meters. The launch crews, feeling immune in a geographical comfort zone, say, north of Beirut, can now aim for the Jews of the holy city without worrying about blowing up Al-Aksa by mistake.
The catch-all description of “Scuds” shouldn’t mislead us, either. These are not Saddam’s 1991 projectiles. These are missiles that can carry half-ton payloads. When they land, they cause major destruction.
Were a new round of conflict to break out, Hizbullah and/or Syria and/or Hamas could attempt to fire hundreds upon hundreds of missiles into the heart of Israel in an opening eruption... and then to maintain intense fire for as long as they could – weeks or even months. The aim would be to confine much of Israel to the bomb shelters, and thus to extract capitulative decisions from an Israeli government weakened by a panicking citizenry.
Hence, therefore, the emphasis this week on practicing close coordination between the IDF and local authorities, on the testing of hugely upgraded nationwide alarm systems, and on the rehearsals of scenarios in which large parts of the population flee from one part of the country to another. Again, yes, these were all drills, but there are clear-eyed assessments underpinning the need for them.
ENSURING THAT Israeli civilians are as well-prepared as possible for dire eventualities is now a central element in IDF strategy. The home front is most definitely on the front lines now. And the IDF has allocated colossal resources to its protection.
But the necessarily defensive nature of this week’s drill should not obscure the security establishment’s relentless focus on deterrence and offensive capabilities as well.
The IDF was lambasted abroad for its purported disproportionate actions in both the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. It was heavily criticized at home too, often for different reasons – including the perceived failure to either “finish off” Hizbullah and Hamas or to cut short the conflict after the initial achievements of the first few days.
In the defense establishment’s assessment, however, both encounters dramatically rehabilitated Israel’s deterrent capacity, with the use of ground forces during Operation Cast Lead shattering Hamas’s confidence that Israel simply wouldn’t dare send its troops into such treacherous territory. Hizbullah, Hamas, even Syria, are doing their utmost to boost their missile capabilities. You don’t choose that priority, at the expense of all manner of other needs, unless you fully intend to use those weapons. The only reason they’re not using them now is because of Israeli deterrence – the well-grounded fear of how the IDF might respond. The trouble with deterrence, however, is that you only know it has become inadequate after the missile salvoes start flying.
The changing nature of war, and the centrality of the home front, has necessarily meant an adjustment in the IDF’s offensive strategies. As was the case with both south Lebanon and Gaza, there’s a vital focus on rapidly reducing the enemy’s capacity to fire missiles; 50-plus medium-range missile launchers were wiped out in a remarkable, under-appreciated operation at the very start of the Second Lebanon War. But both those recent conflicts showed that even Israel’s cutting edge air force simply cannot destroy each and every missile launcher, and the challenge is becoming ever-more complex given the mobility of the launchers and the lengthening range of the missiles.
The defense establishment knows it won’t be able to halt all missile fire, however successful its initial air attacks might be. It also recognizes that even striking the civilian infrastructure in enemy territory would not necessarily exert sufficient pressure to halt missile attacks. Thus there is a realization of the likely need for the use of ground forces – against what is now a 45,000-strong Hizbullah army, and/or Hamas’s 15,000-strong ranks.
Those extended-range enemy missiles, however, mean Israeli troops on the ground are no absolute panacea either. They won’t always be able to penetrate far enough; the IDF has no intention of sending ground troops to Beirut.
That’s why Israel has also been placing an unprecedented focus on what might be termed active defense – its various missile shield initiatives. Here, too, though, while Israel is a world leader in missile defense, the heavens cannot be hermetically sealed against salvoes of missiles. Strategic installations and other particularly vulnerable targets can be provided with much-improved protection. Missile-intercept technology is advancing by the month.
But even if funding were unlimited, and innumerable defensive devices were deployed, the assumption is that some missiles would get through. And money is not unlimited. Israel cannot afford to be firing intercept devices costing tens of thousands of dollars each at every incoming $100 rocket. Arrow anti-missile batteries cost millions; the Shihab 3 missiles that the Arrow is designed to intercept are being feverishly manufactured by the Iranians at a rate of about 30 a month.
So the IDF strategy comes full circle, back to the elevated emphasis on bolstering the preparation and protection of ordinary citizens.
The defense establishment knows it cannot afford to wage long wars anymore – and the Second Lebanon War, at 33 days, falls into that unacceptable category. Expecting a massive missile onslaught at the start of any conflict, the IDF is readying for a massive military response of its own. That intense response would be maintained, with the key goal of ending any conflict as quickly as possible.
And while the country is under attack, it wants the Israeli public to have the most efficient alarm warning systems; by next year, the technology is expected to enable early and highly specific alerts to go out over mobile phones. It wants every Israeli to know how and where best to find shelter. It rues the fact that insufficient funds have been made available to ensure gas-mask protective kits for all citizens, and is still fighting for that funding. It wants to be sure that the partnership between the security forces and local authorities works not only more smoothly than it did in 2006, when some municipalities were completely overwhelmed, but more smoothly than it did during Operation Cast Lead, when the coordination was much improved. It is steadily improving its emergency procedures for when a missile falls – polishing procedures in the event of a nonconventional strike, and refining partnerships with the police and medical services overall. It has reached out to a volunteer force of 155,000 Israelis, all of whom will have a vital role to fill in bolstering civilian resilience should conflict erupt.
IT WOULDN’T be “just” the South or “just” the North that comes under
missile fire. The heartland of Israel could face salvoes of
unprecedented intensity. The impact of a single missile in Tel Aviv, it
is recognized, would be comparable psychologically and practically to
30 missile strikes in the less-densely populated North or South. But
there wouldn’t be a single missile. There could be hundreds. Hence the
IDF’s overriding imperative to halt that incoming fire, and fast.
Commanders, while acutely aware of the upgraded threat posed by the
swelling missile arsenals across our borders, are emphatic that
Israel’s enemies would be well advised not to risk another round of
conflict. Presumably, Israel’s response to the targeting of its central
population centers would be of a quite devastating, unprecedented
order. Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria and Iran may well be able to reach Tel
Aviv, but they’d be incredibly wrongheaded to try it.
The critical question, on the threshold of a long, hot summer, is
whether enemy strategists share that assessment. This week’s drill
underlines that Israel cannot be certain. This week’s drill was for
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