Analysis: WMD drill is fine, but not enough

Citizens themselves should be drilled and Wednesday's general strike and Saturday's England-Israel match are prime opportunities.

home front drill 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
home front drill 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The official motto of the IDF Engineering Corps's Atomic, Biological and Chemical Unit is "Survive, and continue fighting." Its unofficial motto, the one most of its fighters learn in their first 10 minutes in the unit, is: "If they're using us, everybody else is either hiding, underground or already dead." The official motto explains not only the function of the unit - to protect armor and infantry on a battlefield peppered with chemical or biological agents - but also the spirit in which the unit was established: absorb the worst the enemy can throw at you (in this case, unconventional weapons); fight off enemy troops by taking advantage of the destruction and the chaos; and provide a cleansed area for the regular troops to launch a counterattack. These units are attached to every IDF division, and its soldiers know what to tell the regular combat units about surviving a nonconventional attack. The unit is not attached to the Home Front Command, which is tasked with "citizen protection" and which oversaw Tuesday's massive conventional/nonconventional preparedness drill. This means the Atomic, Biological, and Chemical unit was not involved in the exercise - an unfortunate omission, and not the only one. The underlying goal of Tuesday and Wednesday's Home Front Command drill is to avoid a complete breakdown of Israeli society should it be confronted with a prolonged series of mixed conventional/unconventional attacks. In the case of such attacks on schools, power facilities, strategic installations and urban areas, security forces are trained to quickly clear the area of chemical agents, remove the dead and wounded, and restore a semblance of order. Theoretically, the pandemonium caused by an nonconventional attack can be sufficiently reduced to enable society to absorb the initial blows; the army to mobilize its reserves and send them to the front; the police to maintain law and order; food to be delivered; and everything else needed to keep society going in a time of extreme emergency. Which is why the decision not to include the general population in this drill is puzzling. At 2 p.m. Tuesday, an Israel Radio announcer stated that a nationwide siren would be heard shortly and that it was part of a security forces drill. Nothing would be required of the general populace. Go about your business, the announcer said. Experts say that neither the security forces nor the general population can be prepared for every eventuality, but a minimum of preparedness among the general population is required if we are to avoid the panic an unconventional attack could cause. The real thing, if and when it comes, will not begin promptly at 2 p.m. It could begin at 7:13 a.m. as parents are dropping their children off at school and, caught at the start of a hostage situation, try to rush the attackers; it could occur at 5:30 p.m. during peak traffic, when tens of thousands of cars are blocking the major highways and security and rescue vehicles find it impossible to reach any destination in the cities, or between the cities, let alone several simultaneously; it could happen when all the cellular networks are down and you're out of your mind with worry; it could happen during a large sports event; and it could happen in the middle of a general strike. Wednesday's general strike and Saturday night's England-Israel soccer game are prime opportunities to drill the public. Since it is the citizens themselves who will most be affected by a nonconventional weapons attack, it is the citizens who need to be trained how to act during such times of extreme stress, and how best to cooperate with security forces. People should be taught what to do if they are taken hostage; if they can't find the nearest bomb shelter (have all the bomb shelters been checked?); what to drink if there has been a chemical or biological attack; how to help the wounded and the dying around them; how and where to look for their loved ones if all communication lines are down; what to do with their pets; and basically everything you hope you never have to think about on how to survive in a time of extreme chaos. The cost of drilling the entire population does not have to be exorbitantly high if it is carried out in stages and in geographic rotation. Kiryat Shmona and Sderot have shown that citizens can cope with sustained conventional rocket attacks, even if it comes at great personal and societal cost. But can people in the Dan region cope with nonconventional rocket attacks? What is the drill for a sustained electricity outage once the Hadera and Ashkelon power plants are hit? What can be said for certain, though, is that the Home Front Command, police, and local authorities cannot realistically deal with a population under massive nonconventional attack for any length of time, and they must be given the best possible chance to restore order. This can only be achieved by a population that is at least equipped to cope with the basic questions of such scenarios. Several weeks ago, The Jerusalem Post reported that the private company that won the Defense Ministry's tender to collect the population's gas masks - those from 2003 - has not started its task due to budgetary and bureaucratic problems. Gas masks should be collected, retooled, and handed out to the general population as soon as humanly possible. I don't even know where my gas mask is. I've also forgotten which color needle I'm supposed to inject into my thigh - and which thigh at that - and at what moment, once I've started experiencing the effects of a chemical attack. What are those effects? I need to be drilled, too.