Wide alert!

Israel is making unprecedented preparations for the next rocket war

Preparing for Rocket War 311 (photo credit: .)
Preparing for Rocket War 311
(photo credit: .)
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 mustnot only deal with traffic violations and common criminals, but 'at amoment's notice when the sirens go off they must also put on their gearand be fully capable of dealing with a rocket attack.' The typicalpoliceman knows Kassam rocket ranges and how to identify differentgrades of explosives and warheads, and they are informed of the latestterror warnings from military intelligence and the Shin Bet securityagency.
Because of mandatory army service, many ordinary citizens can defusebombs and take down terrorists. But it is the growing threat of massiverocket barrages, perhaps with non-conventional warheads, that has thenation scrambling to prepare its civilian population.
The head of the IDF Southern Command, Gen. Yoav Galant, recently warnedthat the year-long quiet in the south may be over soon. And thepresidents of both Syria and Turkey have just warned Hizbullah thatIsrael plans to attack Lebanon in the spring - surely disinformation,but the sort of fodder that could easily spark a fire in the MiddleEast tinder box. And this time, Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowedto join in, bringing Syria's vast missile arsenal and its deadlystockpiles of nerve agents into the equation.
While no one can predict with certainty if conflict will again breakout in 2010, the looming Iranian nuclear threat has everyone on edge,trying to calculate how the effort to stop Teheran from possessing aBomb might play out.
THE YEAR 2009 closed with several sobering disclosures that erased anydoubts about Iran's nuclear weapons program. First, a site was exposedlast fall near Qom housing enrichment facilities built inside tunnelscarved into a mountainside. The plant was nearly complete and,suspiciously, it was of a size fit for only one use - advancedenrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.
Then in December, a British paper revealed that secret Iraniandocuments had been uncovered detailing a project to test components ofa nuclear trigger. Thus, even the Obama administration no longerbelieves the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded thatTeheran had put its nuclear arms program on ice.
Updated assessments by Western intelligence agencies now reveal thatIran will likely achieve 'breakout' status in 12-18 months - meaningthe capability to produce a nuclear bomb within six months once apolitical decision to do so has been taken.
This has led to mounting pressure on Israeli leaders to begin preparingfor the worst. There's no telling what Iran might do to protect itsatomic program, including starting diversions elsewhere in the regionwhich could spin out of control.
In their initial encounter at the White House last May, Israeli PrimeMinister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly gave US President Barack Obama apledge to hold off on any pre-emptive military action against Iranuntil the end of the year, to give the new president's offer ofdialogue with Teheran a chance to bear fruit. That informal deadline isnow past with no diplomatic breakthrough, and so critical decisionsmust now be made.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened to impose'crippling sanctions,' which most experts feel should take the form ofa ban on the import of refined petroleum products back into Iran - amove that could paralyze much of the nation. But recent reportsindicate the White House is rejecting such proposals, and will optinstead for a narrow set of punitive measures that does not harm themasses 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 themassive demonstrations in the wake of the rigged presidential electionslast June. While the opposition has no single recognized leader, manyfigures appear willing to weather sanctions affecting the entire nationin the hope that these will turn the public even more quickly againstthe ruling clerics and the Revolutionary Guards.
Regarding military strikes, however, the consensus seems to be thatwhile targeted air strikes on Iran's nuclear sites, the RevolutionaryGuards and the regime's centers of power could be quite helpful to theopposition, a broader military campaign that inflicts mass civiliancasualties will drive the people into the arms of President MahmoudAhmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
In Washington, the Pentagon is reported to be at least drawing up plansfor US military strikes, but many analysts see the Obama administrationmoving to a containment strategy. This alternative has Israeli leadersworried, as they fear a nuclear Iran - whether 'contained' or not -would start an ominous arms race in the region while itself becomingmore bold in using its terror proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas tostrike at Israel. It would not be beyond Iran to enable these militiasto inflict mass casualties.
In the north, Hizbullah has already been re-supplied by Iran and itsally Syria with over 40,000 rockets and missiles - three times as manyas it possessed before the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006. Meanwhilein the south, Hamas has used the 'quiet' of the past year to rebuildits arsenals, smuggling in longer-range rockets through tunnels fromSinai, and increasing the range and payload of its own homemaderockets. Both militias now claim to have missiles that can reach TelAviv.
These arsenals would certainly be unleashed should Israel decide tolaunch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.There are sharply differing opinions, however, over just how long theIDF alone could set back the Iranians. US officials have suggested aslittle as six months - an estimate likely meant to deter Israel fromstriking and less the product of an intelligent assessment.
Israel's own strategic experts doubt that the air force, vaunted as itis, will be able to sustain the sort of three-week bombing campaignnecessary to shatter all of Iran's fortified nuclear sites.
Risking unilateral military action could also send shock waves throughthe oil markets, destabilize the region further, induce Iran toaccelerate its nuclear drive, and invite retaliatory terror strikes onIsrael that many world leaders would say Jerusalem brought upon itself.
Nevertheless, one thing is sure; both Netanyahu and Defense MinisterEhud Barak are determined to prevent Iran from bringing a secondHolocaust upon the Jewish people. And both believe that Israeli forcescould 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 severalyears now. But will even tough sanctions have the deep and immediateimpact needed to move the clerical regime off its current course?
Whether the threat of an Israeli attack is serious or not, during aNovember visit to China Obama used the image of Israel turning cowboyto try to persuade Beijing to lift its objections to strictersanctions. China has billions invested in Iran, and is increasinglydependent on Persian oil, but it also realizes that this supply couldbe disrupted if the IDF takes action.
Over the past year, Israel has openly signaled it has the capability totake on Iran. The IAF has flown war planes westward out over theMediterranean on long-range practice missions as far as Iran is to theeast.
Meanwhile, on the home front, civilian preparations for a rocket warare in full swing (see related stories). The state-of-the-art missiledefenses the nation will rely on have been fully tested. In the JuniperCobra joint military exercises in October, the US and Israel eachcontributed 5,000 military personnel for a huge dry run on defendingagainst incoming Iranian ballistic missiles. The unparalleled drilltested the layered anti-missile systems of the Arrow III, the PatriotIII, the Aegis sea-borne system, and the THAAD high-altitudeinterceptor, while successfully integrating America's new X-Band radarwith the IDF's Green Pine radar.
Israel's brand-new Iron Dome system for defending against short-rangerockets also passed a week of rigorous testing in early January, andthe IDF is expected to begin deploying the units near Gaza by May.
In short, a renewed and expanded rocket war is a real possibility, andcould inflict many civilian casualties. No one is taking that threatlightly, given that twice in the past three years, Israelis have wokenup to find themselves in just such a rocket war.
*This article appeared in the April issue of the Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition, to subscribe click here.