Missile alert

Is the Israeli home front prepared for the Iranian-inspired missile threat?

Gas masks 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gas masks 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three o’clock On a late summer afternoon at Hadar Mall in Jerusalem, on the last day of the current round of gas mask distribution. Hundreds of people are milling around a storefront piled high with gas masks, and the air is thick with frustration.
Menucha Halperin, a 58-year-old mother of three and grandmother of three, says she arrived at the distribution center before noon, took number 1265 in the line, and set off to do some shopping. Three and a half hours later she’s back, only to find there are still several hundred more people before her. She calls her daughter to say she won’t be able to pick up her granddaughter from kindergarten, estimating it’ll take another hour and a half – five hours in total – to exchange the outdated gas masks she’s been storing in her house since the mid-1990s.
“This is the biggest balagan (mess) I have ever seen,” she tells The Jerusalem Report, unable to hide her exasperation. “I’m not sure what’s gone wrong here – this shouldn’t be any more complicated than taking a number, waiting your turn and getting the mask. But it’s a mob.”
Home front preparations for a possible war with Iran are less than encouraging. Despite concerns that unrest in Syria could lead to chemical and biological weapons falling into Lebanon’s Hizballah fundamentalists or other terrorist hands, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit admitted that less than half the country has been equipped with gas masks or other defensive material for non-conventional warfare.
The Israel Defense Forces said it could not predict when additional masks would become available, though it did set a goal of placing kits in 58 percent of homes by February 2013. Pundits in the Israeli media have said it would take upwards of two years to manufacture the more than four million masks currently lacking. These numbers do not include West Bank or Gaza Palestinians, who would be well within rocket range should hostilities break out between Israel and Iran or Israel and Hizballah.
Significantly, observers and activists say public bomb shelters around the country have been dramatically improved since the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Whereas six years ago, residents of cities such as Nahariya, Safed, Acre in the north and even the Qassam-battered Sderot in the south were shocked to find stark, neglected shelters with little furniture or provision for people stuck in the shelters for hours at a time, the Home Front Command has upgraded the shelters in the years since.
“If in 2006, ‘good’ shelters had little more than a television or ping pong table to pass the time, today you’d have to say the situation is totally different,” says Rabbi Menachem Kuttner, Director of Chabad’s Terror Victims Project. “Today, a majority of public shelters have been renovated and brought up to scratch. The infrastructure that had been neglected for so many years – water, plumbing, ventilation – has been largely overhauled. It’s a far cry from the situation we had six years ago, when you had hundreds of people squeezed together to escape the rocket attacks. Even if a shelter had an air-conditioner, it could barely help ease the August heat. Less equipped shelters had no tables or chairs, let alone airconditioning.”
On the other hand, are hospitals prepared for another war with Hizballah, or for an attack from Syria or Iran that could include chemical or biological weapons? Or, for that matter, what about a massive, September 11-style terror attack on a major Israeli city? According to Dr. Ofer Merin, Director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Program at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, and the reserve commanding officer of the IDF Field Hospital unit, there is no country on earth that is better prepared for a mass casualty event.
“Emergenc y preparedness in Israel is on a totally different plane to anywhere else,” Merin tells The Jerusalem Report. “Every single hospital has detailed plans to deal with a mass casualty situation. Most hospitals have reinforced buildings to withstand attack and all maintain emergency generators to maintain a flow of electricity, if the country’s power grid is knocked out, to be pulled into service at the first sign of a large-scale emergency.
“We also maintain separate water and air purification systems so we can continue working, if the region becomes contaminated. Of course, we hope and pray we will never need these facilities, but it’s the nature of our profession to hope for the best but to prepare for the worst.”
These preparations include infrastructure and personnel planning at all the country’s hospitals. For example, the bottom three floors of Shaare Zedek, including the emergency room, operating theaters, outpatient clinics and an extensive maze of storerooms, are all located underground in reinforced buildings.
It is the same for Western Galilee Hospital in the northern town of Nahariya, located just three kilometers from the Lebanese border.
In addition, each hospital in the country is equipped with supplies to deal with every imaginable large-scale tragedy – stretchers, gas masks, Hazmat (hazardous materials) suits are neatly organized and kept in full working order, as are antidotes for every biological or chemical agent known to man.
Situation rooms and special green telephones maintain direct connection to the IDF home front command. In the event of a nonconventional attack, doctors are expected to know what sort of attack has taken place and to have the relevant treatments at hand by the time the first patients arrive. Then, as storage rooms are emptied, they can be quickly turned into patient wards.
Hospital officials stress that the key to Israel’s disaster management strategy is practice, not equipment. In Nahariya, the entire hospital was moved underground in just 90 minutes after the building came under attack from Hizballah in 2006.
During the second intifada, from 2000- 2003, hospitals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv obtained tragic expertise in absorbing large numbers of casualties simultaneously, and they have continued to “drill” disaster preparation on a regular basis. “We’ve got 2,500 workers in this building on any given day,” says Merin, “and every one of them knows his or her job in the event of an emergency. Not everybody has to be a thoracic surgeon to contribute – the nonmedical staff, who push gurneys, empty the garbage or make sure the doctors have food and drink, are a vital part of the operation.”
Any war with Iran, Syria, Hizballah or any other regional player is certain to bring with it a massive assault on Israel’s population centers. In contrast to 2006, when Hizballah rockets from Lebanon “only” reached as far south as Haifa and Tiberias, and Hamas rockets from Gaza hit Beersheba, Hizballah’s offensive capability now covers the entire country.
Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, believes the heartland could face well over 10,000 missiles emanating from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as opposed to approximately 4,000 attacks during the 2006 conflict.
According to Rubin, an engineer and leading missile expert, who oversaw the development of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system, Iran and Syria, as well as terror groups such as Hamas and Hizballah, have increased both the quantity and quality of their weapons systems over the past six years. He says Hizballah alone now has at least 13,000 missiles, and could hit every city in Israel, including Tel Aviv.
Hamas can also reach Tel Aviv from northern Gaza, and Iran has several missile systems that could target Israel. He told the Al Monitor website that Tehran has started deploying missiles in hardened silos that Israel would have trouble destroying in a pre-emptive strike. As well as placing all Israeli civilians in the range of rocket fire, Hizballah’s and Hamas’s expanded capabilities put major strategic targets, including Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Ashdod seaport, well within reach.
It is important to state that Israel has an impressive array of anti-missile technology, from the Iron Dome short-range system that has won praise for downing mortars and rockets from Gaza, to Rubin’s longrange Arrow and the American-built Patriot system, which scored mixed results during the 1991 Gulf War but which has been upgraded in the ensuing years.
Furthermore, Rubin stresses that there is a difference between an enemy’s arsenal and the threat scenario one could expect in a potential conflict. He tells The Report that a chemical or biological attack on Israel is highly unlikely – “our enemies may hate us, but they aren’t suicidal. They know what Israel’s red lines are and what sort of fury Israel would bring to bear to retaliate for a non-conventional attack.”
Rubin declines to detail what he believes would be Israel’s response, but he said a non-conventional attack would “change the rules of the game,” both for Israel and for the way the international community views Israel’s position in the conflict.Regardless of the enemy arsenals, Rubin says there are a variety of questions that defense officials consider when considering a threat scenario.
“If an enemy has 4,000 rockets, they’re not going to fire all of them,” he asserts.
“Furthermore, you’ve got to consider whether the attacks are going to come from Lebanon, or whether Iran will get involved directly. You’ve also got to ask whether Iran will fire at other targets and countries, leading the conflict to go much wider than a limited Israel-Iran clash.
“There is more to the threat assessment than the number of rockets that will actually hit, or could actually hit, Israeli targets. People forget that the 39 Scud missiles that Saddam Hussein fired at Israel caused very little actual damage, but the country closed down for two months. The economic damage to northern Israel from the mass exodus during the 2006 war was enormous – NIS 2 billion ($500 million) in insurance payouts for injuries and property damage. That number does not address damage to the financial markets, business activities, and for the fact that the port of Haifa was empty during the war,” he adds.
Back at the Jerusalem gas mask distribution center, even to the casual observer, it’s easy to see why Menucha Halperin is so vexed. Officials at the site have no air of authority, and there is no apparent address for complaints. With all the noise, it is virtually impossible to hear the young man barking out numbers, and people who approach the barricade to ask if they’ve missed their spot are turned away with a dismissive wave of the hand. Eventually, someone produces a megaphone, but it doesn’t help much, and he spins through the numbers so fast it is impossible for people to reach the front of the line before he jumps to the next one.
Things aren’t much better at the distribution table. In a city in which Hebrew, English, Russian and Arabic speakers are the norm, postal workers (distribution is handled by the Israel Postal Company) appear to only know Hebrew; one elderly Russian-speaking couple is having trouble communicating. No one seems to have received any instruction about how to use the kits, though there is a video (Hebrew only) playing at the exit from the distribution center showing customers how to put on their gas masks in the event of emergency.
Distribution staff and the supervisor in charge declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Clutching the six gas masks she’s finally secured for her family, Halperin heads home with a sigh of frustration, and a final word of despair.
“What really worries me about all this isn’t so much the gas masks, but the fact that there is no organization for what should really be a pretty simple distribution system. It’s dog-eat-dog here, and I shudder to think what it would be like if we were lining up for food and water in the height of war.
“It’s survival of the fittest here, and if I was forced to line up like this for food and water, I’m afraid I would starve.”