Home Front: Are we prepared for war?

Home Front Are we prepa

By all accounts, in the event of a future round of hostilities in the region, it will be the home front that will be the target of choice for Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran. In southern Lebanon, rocket caches hidden in Shi'ite villages have, on occasion, exploded accidentally over the past few months, providing a glimpse into Hizbullah's massive rearmament efforts, which are focused on the acquisition of long-range projectiles capable of striking deep into Israel. The interception of an Iranian arms ship last week carrying almost 3,000 rockets destined for Hizbullah, and recent intelligence reports on the test-firing of a rocket by Hamas in Gaza able to strike Tel Aviv, offer more evidence that these two terrorist armies are quietly stocking up on weapons designed to severely disrupt civilian population centers. Israel is watching on the sidelines as Iran stonewalls diplomatic efforts to rein in its nuclear program, but has hinted that it will not wait forever. Iran possesses a long-range ballistic missile program that, too, could be turned against the Israeli home front. In light of these threats, it seems natural to ask: How prepared is the home front for war? Clearly, the answer to this question cannot begin in 2009, but rather in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, when the country found itself wholly unprepared for large-scale rocket fire on the North. Masses of disgruntled northerners, fed up with sleeping in poorly equipped bomb shelters, fled southward, after local services ground to a halt and the Home Front Command was slow to respond to events on the ground. "We have learned many lessons since the Second Lebanon War," said Col. Chilik Soffer, head of population at the Home Front Command, during an interview last week. Indeed, the Home Front Command has emerged from the shambles of 2006 and busied itself with studying what went wrong. It has instituted a complete reform of its working practices. "Many big changes have been under way," Soffer said. Instructions for civilians to remain in bomb shelters for days on end were consigned to the dustbin. Instead, civilians have been instructed to take advantage of peacetime to locate "safe zones" - rooms, stairwells or bomb shelters - in which they will be least exposed to rocket attacks. Members of the public need only remain in the safe zones for the duration of a rocket attack. "Our figures show that during both the Second Lebanon War, in which 41 civilians were killed, and Operation Cast Least, in which three civilians lost their lives to rockets, 90 percent of deaths occurred in open areas," Soffer said. "Those who enter designated safe zones during rocket attacks are very likely to emerge without any injury." Communication channels with the general public have been radically improved, with information being made available through mailed leaflets, TV and radio ad campaigns, and the Home Front Command's Internet site. "The bottom line is that there has been a very positive revolution since the Second Lebanon War," said Gidi Grinstein, founder and director of the Reut Institute, a strategic planning body. "In my 20 years in the field, it's the most positive sign I've seen." Soffer said there could be no better example of the improvements made than the public's appraisal of the Home Front Command during Operation Cast Lead, two and a half years after the Second Lebanon War. During a poll taken by the Home Front Command on January 19, one day after the fighting ended, 95 percent of residents in the south said they had full confidence in the Home Front Command's abilities. BUT ACCORDING to a report published by Reut and the Israel Trauma Coalition in September, the picture isn't all rosy. Sections of the home front could face collapse in the next war or natural disaster unless a network of civilian sectors is created and trained to deal with emergencies, the report said. "Despite all that was done since 2007, the enormous investment of funds, personnel, exercise and budgets, and despite what we saw during Operation Cast Lead, Israel remains exposed to the danger of home front collapse in certain areas," Grinstein said. "A home front collapse could be characterized by public disorder, looting, and a total loss of trust by the public due to a dramatic gap between the state's resources, on the one hand, and expectations by the public on the other." But Soffer dismissed concerns of social collapse during wartime. "All research done on the subject shows that the looting threat is a myth. In fact, most citizens are adaptive, and become more adaptive during wars and disasters. Levels of anti-social behavior and crime fall during wars." The Reut Institute has stressed that current efforts at readiness have been very good, but remain incomplete. "The problem is that the home front has had no place in the dominant security concept in Israel. We believe it must be integrated into security thinking, as a central component," Grinstein said. "The home front does have an important place in security thinking," countered Soffer. "Organizing the civilian sector is seen as critical. We've been dealing with threats to civilians since 1948, when Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv. This is not a new threat." Still, Grinstein says he is concerned by the prospect of an unprecedented assault on civilians in a future war, which could be far more widespread than the limited northern or southern zones that past conflicts have been limited to. "There are huge resources that are not being recruited, this is where the report is focused," he said. "One chemical weapon could lead to thousands of casualties." He praised a Home Front Command plan to use gyms across the country as alternatives to hospitals for the treatment of victims in the event of a chemical missile attack. As part of a civilian national emergency network, the Reut Institute's report recommends that charities which provide vital services like food deliveries be identified and provided with means to continue working in a national emergency situation. "We do agree with Reut's report on this point. There is a need to employ charities which provide essential services to create a support network," Soffer said. "We have been doing that. The emphasis has been on getting civilians to provide help to one another in their areas. It's logical to create priorities of people whom you can help. "We plan to take all high school students and train them to be volunteers, to expand the support network by 300,000 people." Reut is concerned by the prospect of a breakdown in private sector services, like the delivery of cash to ATMs or food to supermarkets. But Soffer said such a breakdown would not take place, since "the government is responsible for assisting civilians if that happens." Grinstein said that the Home Front Command was not fully integrating civilians into its preperations, adding, "the Home Front Command is a hierarchical organization. Citizens must be spoken to and recruited in the right way." He pointed to the low level of participation in June's Turning Point civil defense drill, in which the Home Front Command asked members of the public to respond to mock air raid sirens by evacuating to safe zones. But Soffer said polls taken of the general population showed that the majority did partake in the exercise. The polls did reflect regional differences, however, with northern and southern residents taking part in the exercise in larger numbers than those who reside in the center. Ultimately, Soffer said, it was important to remember to keep things in perspective. He stressed that anti-missile defense programs "which provide answers" are being developed and deployed, and that the Israeli public was accustomed to enduring national emergencies.