Military Affairs: The man who prepared Haifa for war

Col. Eitan Yitzhak reveals model used to ready Haifa for attack.

Rescue workers in Haifa after rocket explosion 370 (photo credit: Petr Josek/Reuters)
Rescue workers in Haifa after rocket explosion 370
(photo credit: Petr Josek/Reuters)
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 stage.”
Col. Eitan Yitzhak, outgoing head of the Home Front CommandCol. Eitan Yitzhak, outgoing head of the Home Front Command
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 missiles.
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 Strip.
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 considerably.
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.
“We 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 said.
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 southern cities.
Yitzhak found himself in the middle of the action.
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.
This cross-agency approach would prove to be the key to a new Home Front Command approach.
“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.
This revamped model continues to resonate today. Yitzhak’s approach is based on the concept of integration.
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 force.
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.
A new model had been created.
In 2010, the IDF decided to reverse a mistake and recreate a Haifa District in the Home Front Command.
Three months 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 projectiles.
Yitzhak moved to Haifa. He was aghast over the state of war preparedness there.
“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 said.
“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.
Similarly, a 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.
He was later told in an offhand manner that drill was canceled.“There wasn’t even an apology!” Yitzhak exclaimed, still brimming with surprise.
“They felt 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 crucial.
“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 said.
“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 all attended.
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, he noted.
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 argued.
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.”
Yitzhak also 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 causes.
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.
In 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 said.
“Today, the system is in place. Now it needs to be maintained and safeguarded.”