In the shadow of last summer's war, Israel's civilian and military emergency services held the most extensive civil defense exercise in the country's history on Tuesday. In Sderot, police drilled an all-too-common scenario - Kassam barrages in the city - days after local council heads announced that they had finalized civilian evacuation plans for the areas surrounding Gaza.
No aid to terror (editorial)
The nationwide exercise was temporarily suspended in the late morning when security forces received specific intelligence regarding a possible terrorist attack.
After identifying a suspicious taxi traveling on the coastal highway, police ordered it off the road at Shefayim, north of Tel Aviv. Sappers inspected the vehicle, but found no explosives or other materials that could be used in an attack.
The taxi driver and two passengers were arrested and taken to the Netanya police station for further questioning.
Air raid sirens wailed across Israel as part of the national exercise, which drilled a variety of scenarios, including a "mega-terror" attack and hits by nonconventional Iranian and Syrian missiles.
But silence reigned in Sderot, where police decided that the sirens would be too frightening for the residents, who are accustomed to hearing the alarms on a daily basis.
As police cars flooded the streets of the Negev city, the social services of the nearby Eshkol Regional Council were busy assembling lists of candidates for evacuation as part of the region's "worst case" scenario.
Council head Uri Na'amati said newly-drafted emergency plans call for the evacuation of approximately 1,000 of the region's 11,500 residents in what he terms "an extreme scenario."
In an area frequently targeted by Kassam rockets, that scenario would involve, according to Na'amati, "two straight weeks of bombardments with a number of killed and wounded."
Even in such a case, he says, the council only plans to evacuate "the weakest residents who are in distress or need nursing care" to the nearby Ramat Hanegev area, which includes Kibbutz Revivim and Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh.
Schoolchildren, he says, will not be evacuated, and classes will probably not be postponed. Instead, Na'amati explained that the council had discussed the possibility of holding classes in each community, rather than busing the children over vulnerable roads to the local consolidated school.
In sharp contrast to the disorder that plagued evacuations from the North last summer, the Eshkol area will notify people in advance, should the need arise, that they are on the evacuation list and tell them the location of their temporary shelter.
Evacuees, Na'amati said, will be assigned to buses, with people designated to accompany them to their pre-assigned shelters. He said the local council was satisfied with the plans.
But Tuesday's exercises were not limited to areas such as Sderot and the Galilee where home front readiness has already been tested, and the scenarios varied from the mundane to the extreme.
At the Savyon school in Ramat Gan, security forces drilled a terrorist takeover of a school involving a chemical agent. Dozens of policemen came to the scene, as well as Magen David Adom ambulances and fire and rescue squads.
Stun grenades exploded as yellow smoke billowed from the school's basketball court as to simulate a chemical attack.
Thousands of security personnel are participating in the two-day exercise. Two armed men wearing red and white keffiyehs and signs saying "terrorist" stormed the school. Soldiers acting as students shrieked and ran, collapsing as they wiped their eyes in mock pain.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the exercise was meant in part to prepare for a possible Iranian missile attack.
"We will do everything to defend the Israeli people against all kinds of attack, wherever it comes from," he told reporters outside the school. "The main threat is Iran and the terrorist organizations that Iran supports and sponsors."
AP contributed to the report.