If the bomb drops...

What Tel Aviv residents should know, the precautions that they should take, and what they can expect.

Arrow missile 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
Arrow missile 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Tel Avivians like to reminisce about the six surreal weeks in early 1991 when the city came under the fire of Scud missiles fired from Sadam Hussein's Iraq. The perceived threat at the time was from a non-conventional biological or chemical warhead, and residents donned gas masks and cowered in sealed rooms behind plastic sheets and duct tape. While the effectiveness of these precautions remains questionable (four Israelis reportedly died of asphyxiation while wearing gas masks during the war), the question of preparedness for a non-conventional (nuclear, chemical or biological) attack continues to worry both the authorities and citizens. During a conference last month entitled "Ballistic Missiles and Rockets" held by the Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy and the Program for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University (TAU), tension suffused the Bar Shira auditorium, which was packed with an audience of hundreds. Arguments among audience members broke out during the lectures, punctuated with bursts of nervous laughter. It was not just an interest in missiles that had attracted people to a long conference on a balmy spring day, but the urgent question: What will Tel Aviv do if and when the bomb drops? Amid threats of nuclear attack from Iran and missile attacks from Syria, residents of Israel's largest metropolis now have reason to wonder what measures are being taken to ensure their safety. Emboldened by the Hizbullah's perceived victory in Lebanon last summer, Iran is purportedly more willing than ever to strike at Israel. Yet Israel is not defenseless against an Iranian missile attack, and the Arrow II missile defense system, deployed specifically for that purpose, appears capable of defeating Iran's medium-range missile, the Shihab-3. Most military experts believe the Israeli-made Arrow missile defense system provides a better defense than the US-made Patriots, which had mixed results in the 1991 Gulf War. Last summer, Minister of Pensioners Affairs Rafi Eitan, a former intelligence officer, told Israel Radio that Iran's primary target if attacked would be Israel, "therefore we must prepare for what could come, and prepare the entire country for a missile strike attack, to prepare all the civilian systems so they are ready for this." Eitan told the radio that Israel should "prepare its bomb shelters," a carefully calibrated term for precautions against chemical or biological attack. Bomb shelters are capable of handling conventional attacks, as demonstrated during last summer's Katyusha strikes in the north of the country. However, additional preparations would be needed for chemical or biological attacks, similar to those made prior to the 1991 Gulf War. This includes distributing gas masks to the general populace and installing chem/bio "barriers" in shelters. The bodies involved in Home Front defense - the defense ministry, the IDF's Home Front Command, police and fire department - have internalized the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War and last summer's Second Lebanon War, and Israel is probably better prepared than ever for a possible non-conventional attack. For example, in the event of a smallpox attack, the government is reportedly prepared to vaccinate the entire population in a very short time, and Israel has easily enough vaccine for its citizenry. But how effective would such measures be in the event of a nuclear attack? Participants at the conference expected Tel-Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai to address such concerns in the final speech of the day. Huldai was due to discuss the threat from the perspective of the population, but just moments before the mayor was scheduled to speak - seven hours into the conference - a last-minute change was announced: Huldai had cancelled his appearance. This announcement did little to quell the tension among audience members - in fact it introduced a new element of profound dissatisfaction. Many attendees rose in disgust and left before the final lecture was completed. Others stayed for the last question-and-answer session in order to voice their discontent. "What are we taking home from this?" one audience member called out angrily. The conference, which was open to the public and featured lectures by some of Israel's most prominent national security experts, was the 35th conference on Science, Technology and Security held by TAU in the past five years. "It is important that there be dialogue between academia and the military and defense ministry," Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, head of TAU's Program for Security Studies and the Tel-Aviv Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, told Metro. Ben-Israel initiated such dialogue by organizing monthly symposia in TAU on the topic of national defense and security. "We gather together the top experts on security and address a different topic at each session," he says. What sounds like an innocuous premise ended up creating a venue for some highly controversial discussions. Doctor Reuven Pedatzur, a senior lecturer from TAU's Department of Political Science and a former fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force (IAF), openly challenged the government's decision to fund development of the Arrow, a missile defense system that he claims has been worthless against Syria's SS-21 missiles. Pedatzur's blunt manner and wry humor drew appreciative reactions from the audience. His comments could be considered inflammatory at an event that hosted several high-ranking officers in the IDF, which supports the Arrow project. Pedatzur went on to question the government's financial accountability for the project, remarking: "There is no transparency [from the government] as to how much money is going into the development of the Arrow… The figures that have been reported are impossibly low for such a costly defense system." In a short American-made film entitled Countermeasures, narrated in a robotic monotone eerily reminiscent of a science fiction movie, Pedatzur demonstrated that the "kill vehicles" meant to intercept conventional warheads can be easily confused in a number of ways. "We do not yet have an effective method to counter these missiles," he concluded. How worried should Tel Aviv residents be about a nuclear attack? Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, who once headed military studies at the Armament Development Authority (RAFAEL), insists that the government and media have contrived to exaggerate the threat of a nuclear attack from Iran. "Everything you'll hear now about a nuclear threat from Iran was being said in 1992," he scoffed, adding that Iran's flaunting its nuclear capacities is no more than a ploy to impress Israelis. "By believing their propaganda, Israel is playing into Teheran's hands," he concluded. Ben-Israel clarified to Metro that the conference was intended to focus more on the threat of Hizbullah than the nuclear threat from Iran - serious as he agrees such a nuclear threat could be. "[The conference] discussed ballistic missiles and rockets because after the last war with Hizbullah, everyone realizes now that they're a serious issue," he said. The threat to Tel Aviv is immediate, added Ben-Israel. "Hizbullah has long-range rockets that are capable of reaching Tel Aviv." Ben-Israel has had his share of experience in the field of defense, having served in the IAF in many prominent capacities during the past 40 years. He headed the IAF's Operations Research Branch, the Analysis and Assessment Division of IAF Intelligence, and was the head of Military Research and Development in both the IDF and the defense ministry. More recently he founded RAY-TOP Ltd., which advises the defense industry on issues of strategy and technology. Ben-Israel offered pointed criticism of the government's handling of last summer's Second Lebanon War. "What went wrong in the summer were wrong decisions made by the top government leadership, and the IDF not realizing that we should stop the war quickly. They thought we had time to play with technology… We fought Hizbullah along the border while the rockets were falling 20 kilometers away." "What we should have done is try to stop the rockets," Ben-Israel suggests. "[The IDF] didn't because they thought we had enough time, not realizing the psychological effects of rockets, the effects on people who had to live for a month in shelters." According to Zeev Friedman, Director of Social Services for the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa whose address replaced the lecture that Mayor Huldai was to have given, psychological damage must be taken into account along with the more tangible ravages of war. "We must have services to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," he told the conference. In an interview with Metro, Friedman outlined his plan - which by extension, he said, is the mayor's plan - for the care of Tel Aviv's population in the event of an attack. "In Tel Aviv, our model [for coping with attacks and disasters] is unique and serves as an example for all of Israel," he claimed. A Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal spokesperson told Metro that "teams from the municipality's security and emergency services branch maintain and upgrade 240 shelters throughout the city in an ongoing fashion. These shelters are prepared for conventional and/or chemical attacks, in compliance with threats facing Israel in the past and directives from the government and security forces. To this day, the municipality has received no information or instructions regarding the need for other preparations." The spokesperson pointed out that "a map of public shelters is accessible via the municipal website (www.tel-aviv.gov.il), and all other necessary information on the subject can be received from security and emergency services branch employees, neighborhood committees and local neighborhood administrations." Friedman will be leading a delegation to Hungary later this year to demonstrate the Tel Aviv model for the benefit of Hungarian cities. Last year, he led a similar delegation in Moscow. During his lecture, he described the process by which Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality's Social Services Administration would, in his words, "prepare the population for a major catastrophe. We have to be prepared for thousands of casualties." "The system in Tel Aviv works efficiently because we move from routine to emergency within the same infrastructure," he added. Despite Friedman's lecture, the mayor's absence at the seminar was keenly felt. For some Tel Aviv residents, the answers they had been seeking were still out of reach. One member of the audience, a tall, elderly man with a resonant voice, proclaimed, "Forty years ago we had none of this technology and the people who led us knew nothing of electronics. But they believed in people. Today a lot was said, but in reality nothing was said." Mayor Huldai declined an interview with this paper. Gimme shelter The Internet is replete with guides for preparing for imminent strategic nuclear attacks. Many emphasize the expected severe destruction followed by widespread radioactive fallout downwind, noting that governments are better prepared to direct and assist the public in a 'dirty bomb' incident than an actual nuclear attack. Western countries came to terms with the threat of a nuclear attack as early as 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of nuclear war closer than ever. First priorities to assure survival are Shelter, Water, and Food/Supplies. Water is essential for drinking, food preparation and good sanitary practices, and every possible container should be filled and stored in a safe, accessible place, as should non-perishable foodstuffs. "There is no such thing as too much water," one website points out. Protected spaces, defined in government guidelines as "easy-to-reach, sealed rooms that are capable of providing protection against both conventional and non conventional weapons for several hours," are compulsory in newly constructed homes in Israel. The most efficient type of protected space is the "security room" with walls of reinforced concrete. Since 1991, nearly 300,000 security rooms have been built in houses, hotels, workplaces and other buildings around the country. Some websites attempt to dispel "myths" of nuclear un-survivability, noting simple principles of radiation protection. Radioactive fallout - the particulate matter (dust) produced by a nuclear explosion as a mushroom cloud - mostly settles back to earth downwind of an explosion. However the heaviest fallout will likely land close to ground zero within minutes of an explosion. Lighter dust-like particles typically fall hours later, often hundreds of miles downwind. The fallout blows around and gathers like dust or light snow on the ground and roofs. Wind and rain can concentrate the fallout into localized "hot spots." Radioactive fallout emits penetrating radiation energy similar to x-rays, that can penetrate walls, roofs and protective clothing. However the fallout rapidly loses its intensity: Gamma ray radiation reportedly weakens to only one-tenth as strong seven hours after the explosion, and one-hundredth as deadly two days later. The bottom line is that if properly sheltered, residents can safely wait as the situation becomes less dangerous with each passing hour. What stops radiation is, simply, mass. The thicker and denser (heavier) the fallout shelter walls, the more radiation they stop. Fallout shelters also help to maximize the distance away from the fallout 'dusting' outside.