Prepared for war?

Former deputy head of military intelligence and a disaster management researcher, says that while Israel’s home front is the best prepared in the world, it is not yet where it needs to be in the event of a war with Iran.

Second Lebanon War (photo credit: Reuters)
Second Lebanon War
(photo credit: Reuters)
Various city governments, national agencies and the IDF’s home front command are feverishly preparing for the effects that a war with Iran and its proxies in Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip would have on Israel’s civilian population. Speaking with officials, either local or national, one gets a sense that everything that can be done is being done and that Israelis have little to worry about in the event of missile bombardment.
Several months ago, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Moshe Tiomkin, a Tel Aviv municipal official in charge of defense and emergency management, as well as transportation, said his city had set up emergency command centers and contracted with building and construction companies to use their heavy digging and earth-moving equipment for rescue efforts should the city face a disaster.
“After the Gulf War in 1991, private shelters – the mamad system – were implemented, comprising private shelters built into every newly constructed apartment.
In buildings built before the Gulf War, there is a shelter on every floor, and there is also one under each building.
Lastly, there are more than 350 public shelters, and we even have one shelter, a big shelter, that can hold 2,000 people,” he said.
Among the public shelters recently constructed in the city are two mega-shelters that have received quite a lot of press over the past year. The first, built on more than four stories underneath the Habimah Theater, can shelter up to 1,600 people. This official shelter will supplement an adjacent 35,000 sq.m. garage which, while not fortified, will provide some protection for those unable to get into the newly constructed complex.
The second newly constructed shelter was built at the Sourasky Medical Center and can hold between 700 and 1,000 hospital beds, also spread throughout four underground levels. This facility currently serves as a short-term parking garage but is said to be almost instantly convertible for wartime usage.
While Tiomkin seems quite confident in the administration’s ability to protect its constituents, signs indicating the location of public shelters are not apparent to visitors to Tel Aviv. The thousands of commuters who stream into the city every day, not to mention the record-breaking number of tourists who have visited Israel over the past year, would most likely face the prospect of a last-second frantic search for shelter should the emergency sirens begin to wail.
At the same time, the IDF’s home front command has run a series of high-profile exercises geared toward preparing the command to coordinate with various government and civilian agencies in the event of a war or other disaster and earlier this year embarked on a well publicized campaign to distribute gas masks. However, critics charge that a large number of Israelis never received masks.
More recently, a colorful pamphlet, featuring puppets and fanciful illustrations, was placed in mailboxes around the country explaining what steps citizens must take in the event of a war.
With all of the preparations and public relations efforts from those groups involved in efforts to get Israel ready for armed conflict, it is sometimes hard to gain a complete picture of the state of the country’s readiness on the home front.
To gain a better picture of the current situation, the Post spoke with Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Meir Elran, the former deputy head of military intelligence and a disaster management researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, who has been monitoring Israel’s home front preparations.
How prepared is Israel to deal with the home front in a war with Iran?
To answer you very broadly again, if you look at the situation, the rate of preparedness, which is a process of course, in the last let’s say six years since the 2006 war, I think that by and large the rate of preparedness in Israel has improved significantly. The question [whether it] will be enough as far as the threat is concerned. My [assessment] is that yes, we have made significant progress, but the threat has grown to an extent that by and large the gap between the threat and our response is such that the gap has not decreased.
Can you elaborate?
We can say several things about the progress. We can say several things about the lack of progress.
The progress by and large has been in terms of the active defense systems, which we have made significant progress [in developing and deploying]... with special regard to the coverage of the Iron Dome, and sometime in the future we will also have the David’s Sling [system].
So in terms of active defense we are in a much better situation than we were before.
It doesn’t mean that we are covered properly, because right now we have between three and four batteries of Iron Dome and probably the number of batteries that we [need] for full coverage is something between 10 and 12. So we are making progress, but we are not there yet. It will take several more years to reach the degree of coverage that we will need.
So this is one thing in terms of progress, the other one is with regard to the early warning systems and this whole business of the [civil defense] sirens. In this respect there has also been significant progress made in terms of narrowing significantly the zone of alert. Beforehand we practically had the entire country divided into 10 different zones of alert. Now we have more than that and we can be much more focused in terms of the alert system, which means the rest of the country can stay in a regular state of routine conduct when some parts of the country are under alert.
Which parts of the country are best prepared?
I don’t think that it can be said, mostly.
Let’s say that the better prepared parts of the country are the southern parts, facing the Gaza Strip, and the northern parts, but there are so many other factors that have to be taken into consideration. For example, the role of the municipalities. There are some municipalities that are doing a fine job of preparedness, of the promotion of preparedness.
Some are not doing [as well].
Can you give an example? Which municipalities are doing good jobs and which not?
Mostly the larger, the more resourceful cities. The same cities that are doing better in other terms are also doing better in terms of preparedness as far as the home front is concerned. Some are not as good.
How is Jerusalem doing?
I cannot be very specific.... Let’s say, if you want me to give credit to some of them I’ll give credit. For example, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba are doing fine and, of course, also those regional districts that are in direct proximity to the Gaza Strip.
What is the role of a local council in preparing for a missile strike or a war with Iran, as opposed to the responsibilities of the IDF home front command?
They don’t work separately. They work together. The home front command is supposed to give the professional guidance or the guidelines, and most of the job, in terms of preparing the population in terms of shelters, in terms of the day after, has to be provided by the municipalities.
So it’s mostly a joint venture, and here again comes the story of how committed the municipality is to taking care of those issues.
Some are more interested in this thing than others.
Is there an increase in bomb shelters being built in recent years?
No, not really. There is lots of talk about it but if you are talking about real, meaningful progress, the answer is unfortunately not.
How damaging is that for Israel should it enter into a missile war?
Well, it depends on the extent of the war. If it’s a full-scale war that goes on for a long period of time and the entire country is covered, of course [the lack of shelters] will be meaningful, but if it will be shorter, and...
mostly limited to [specific] regions, then of course it will not be as bad. It really depends on the scenario.
We have seen pundits and politicians offering casualty estimates for an Iran war scenario. Is it possible to arrive at a plausible estimate regarding casualties?
Not really. Lots of it will be caused by luck or lack of luck.
Has the home front command distributed sufficient gas masks to cover Israel’s population?
The story is very simple. We have covered about two thirds of the population and the rest is not covered, and there are no present plans for the gap to be closed.
Why not?
The government has not really decided to invest the money that is needed to supplement the gap.
If chemical weapons are used, up to a third of the population is vulnerable?
The prediction is that the chances of a chemical war are not really very high.
Have the government and the IDF home front command, aside from the brochures recently sent to homes across the country, been putting in a significant effort to disseminate information regarding what to do in case of an emergency?
They have a nice website, and you have realize they have a sort of balance that they are trying to strike in pouring information into a somewhat indifferent public hand and not overdoing it. So I think the idea is mostly to disseminate the information in the right dosage.... When the situation really becomes more tense, when chances for conflict are more apparent then probably they will disseminate more accurate and substantial information to the overall public.
What have been the more recent initiatives to prepare the home front by the IDF home front command?
They are very active in terms of promoting drills on all levels. They are preparing for the big [drill] at the end of this month called Turning Point Six, which is going to be focused on preparation for a major earthquake this year, but this is only the culmination or the peak of the very intensive year in terms of training and exercises on all levels, in different municipalities, in different areas, with different sectors, like health and education.
They have been very active in this respect.
It’s a very preplanned kind program and it is, of course, very important in terms of really preparing the overall [disaster management] systems. But again, they have to be very careful and I think they are trying to strike the right balance between doing things and not overdoing it.
Let’s say that Israel goes to war with Iran and missiles from Gaza, Lebanon and Iran itself start falling in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. What steps would be in the government playbook and how would Israel mobilize to aid people on the home front?
The overall strategy is to strike back in such a way [as] to put pressure on the other side so that it will not be able to carry out its plans as far as hitting our targets.
But what is happening in terms of government action at home when this offensive defense, so to speak, is occurring?
What I am saying is, mostly the strategy is offensive in nature. The best way to end the situation is to put the pressure on the other side.
There are of course plans that include putting hospitals on alert and coordinating with civilian emergency resources? Of course. You are speaking on a tactical level. All of the systems will be on alert and all of the systems will be ready for the injured and for the evacuation of large numbers of people.
Can you elaborate on the matter of mass evacuation? Are there plans for moving large numbers of people efficiently?
They do [exist], but again, the strategy does not encourage the evacuation of people from different places. But if something like that happens, most of the people will do it by their own means. Then, of course, there is the issue of how to deal with the people that are less capable of helping themselves.
How would you rate Israel’s home front preparedness?
Israel, compared with any other country in the world is, of course, No. 1. There is no doubt about that. You have to compare [Israel’s preparedness] to the threat, [however, and not to other countries and their capabilities].
If you take the 2006 situation [during the missile attacks of the Second Lebanon War] as the point of departure, we have made tremendous, extremely significant progress.
If you ask me if we are ready in terms of an actual threat, I’d say that we are still quite a distance away from where we have to be.