Taking care of business

OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Gershon Yitzhak saves lives at home and abroad.

gershon yitzhak kenya 88 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
gershon yitzhak kenya 88
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
A missile lands in the heart of Tel Aviv. Police and fire engines backed up by Magen David Adom ambulances rush to the scene and begin evacuating the dead and the wounded. Moments later, the IDF Home Front Command arrives and sets up a joint command center with the civilian rescue forces which then merge into one rescue service. This is OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Gershon (Jerry) Yitzhak's vision - the creation of a united Israeli 'National Emergency Administration' that will bring together all of the civilian rescue emergency services with the IDF at a time of war or during a natural disaster like an earthquake. While Israel has yet to deal with large-scale disasters, Yitzhak, in an exclusive Independence Day interview with The Jerusalem Post during which he lays out his plans for the first time, says he is looking to preempt what could be the inevitable. With natural disasters on the rise around the world and Global Jihad striking in Sinai and Jordan, Yitzhak sees it as his goal to bring together all of the existing rescue services to create one body that at a time of a disaster, whether caused by terror or nature, will know how to take charge in an efficient way. "Despite the fact that we all belong to different ministries and while there are civilian bodies - like the fire department, police and Magen David Adom - and on the other side the IDF Home Front Command," he says, "we need to try and create a situation within Israel during an emergency where all of the different bodies will work together as if they are really operating as one single organization." For the man who, as IDF commander in Judea and Samaria, oversaw the dramatic capture of Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti in 2002, this might not be an impossible task. But no longer on the offensive side, Yitzhak, 48 and a graduate of the Royal College of Defense Studies, says he knows that politics and personal egos could stall his plans. That is why, he says, he is working from the bottom up and has already obtained the blessings of both the Israel police commissioner and the IDF chief of staff. "What is important is that the organizations internalize the idea of working together as one body and not separately," he says. Then he will take it to the government for approval. The need for a National Emergency Administration, he says, was demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans when, after all the civilian emergency services were wiped out, the US government had no choice but to call up the National Guard and the military Northern Command to take charge of the rescue operations. "Any place there is a large-scale disaster," he explains, "the army will be needed since it has an advantage with its size, plus its logistic, medical and air capabilities." So with Iran threatening to wipe Israel off the map in addition to the thousands of Katyusha rockets Hizbullah has deployed in Lebanon pointing at Israel, Yitzhak's plan might be needed in the near future. According to military analysts, if Iran's nuclear installations were bombed, Teheran would react by firing long-range missiles at Israel even if the IDF was not behind the attack. "Iran has proved its ability to launch missiles and we are closely following what goes on there," says Yitzhak, who also has a masters degree in political science. "But in the end it makes no difference if they fire a scud which has tens of kilos of explosives or an Iranian Shihab missile that carries hundreds of kilograms of explosives since most of our work in the Home Front Command is consequence management." Consequence management, he explains, means knowing how to deal with the aftermath of the missile strike, evacuating the dead, saving the wounded and restoring order as soon as possible. "The civilian emergency services need to understand that dealing with a suicide bomber in Hadera is like dealing with a missile that lands in Hadera," he claims. "The only difference is that instead of dealing with one isolated event, they will be dealing with several events simultaneously." The main current threats to Israel, he says, come from Syria and Hizbullah. But, he adds, one cannot ignore Global Jihad which proved through its attacks in the Sinai resort town of Dahab last week and other recent attacks in Jordan that it is closing in on Israel and capable of launching large-scale terror attacks. Israel, he says, is "closely following" Al Qaida and Global Jihad movements. He refuses to divulge what their targets might be in Israel but says that "what is important is that Magen David Adom, the Israel Police, fire department and Home Front Command know how to give a good initial response even if the incident is on a large scale." Yitzhak's eyes are also not just on Israel. As head of the Home Front Command for a year-and-a-half he has already led an IDF mission to Nairobi, Kenya to assist in rescue operations after a building collapsed there in January. The Home Front Command's Search and Rescue teams also assisted Egypt following the bombing attacks in Taba last year. Last month, Yitzhak met with a representative of the Kenyan president at Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle to discuss the possibility of helping the African nation establish its own independent search and rescue team. What makes Israel a leader in the rescue field? For Yitzhak, the answer is obvious. "What motivates us is saving lives and therefore we have developed the necessary skills and offer help where it is needed." The Home Front Command is also made up of chemical warfare rescue units that know how to operate in a strike zone hit by a non-conventional weapon. At the moment, Yitzhak says, Israel does not face an immediate non-conventional threat from any of its enemies and for that reason the Defense Ministry recently decided to begin collecting the public's gas masks for renewal. "At the moment, there is not a threat that is non-conventional and is real and immediate against Israel," he says. "The decision to collect the masks took into consideration current intelligence regarding threats to Israel." Overall, Yitzhak says, all of the threats Israel is currently facing were already in existence 50 years ago and the country managed to overcome them then. "Israel is protected today and we, at the Home Front Command, are prepared to defend Israel better than ever before," he says. "We are always improving our abilities and developing, just as the threats we face develop. I think that Israeli citizens can continue leading routine and normal lives without any restraints." But alongside the global terror threats, missile strikes from Syria and earthquakes, Yitzhak is also in charge of overseeing the ongoing protective work in communities surrounding the Gaza Strip against the daily barrages of Kassam rockets. At the moment, he says, all kindergartens for children from ages one to six have had their roofs reinforced and can now sustain a direct Kassam hit without worrying about casualties. The Red Dawn early-warning system is also deployed throughout the Gaza-belt area and if people act according to regulations he says, they will have 20 seconds to run for cover. "It is enough to lie down on the ground and even if the Kassam falls 10 meters from you nothing will happen," he claims. "The citizens near Gaza get some 20 seconds from when the warning goes off to when the Kassam lands and that is enough time to lie down, enter a home or a nearby store." The IDF, he adds - knowing that his run-for-cover suggestions will not console the residents - will eventually succeed in stopping the rocket fire. But meanwhile, he calls on the Gaza-belt residents to demonstrate courage and resilience like the settlers in Gaza did during the years of attacks against them. "There has been a terror war here over the past five years and the people of Judea Samaria and the Gaza Strip stood courageously in face of the threats," he says. "Now it is the turn of the residents of communities surrounding Gaza who need to demonstrate patience and resilience to let the defense establishment utilize all of the resources at its disposal to stop the Kassam fire." The Home Front Command, he added, was not at fault for the slow-paced construction in the communities outside of Gaza. In some cases, he says, the money has already been allocated by the government but the local councils which are responsible for using the funds to reinforce homes and schools have yet to get their act together. So while reinforced roofs and security rooms are an important factor in the protection offered to the residents, Israel, Yitzhak claims, is making every effort possible on the military and diplomatic front to stop the rocket fire. "The issue of protection is endless and is like a bottomless barrel," he says. "Our answer does not begin with protection but with diplomatic efforts, and then military operations and then protection." The Home Front Command, he further reveals, does not plan, at this stage, to begin reinforcing schools and kindergartens in the Sharon region despite growing efforts by Palestinian terror groups to establish Kassam infrastructure in the West Bank. "It would be very difficult to mass produce rockets while the IDF is in control of the territories in Judea and Samaria," he says adding that if Israel decides to withdraw from the territories the possibility of beginning to reinforce Sharon-region cities will need to be reevaluated.