Protecting Tel Aviv

The White City is preparing for the possibility of missile attacks.

Home Front Command drill stretcher 521 (photo credit: IDF)
Home Front Command drill stretcher 521
(photo credit: IDF)
As more than a million residents in the South huddle in bomb shelters, some makeshift and ad-hoc, the inhabitants of Tel Aviv-Jaffa sit and wonder what will happen to them should the conflict escalate. In the event of Hamas’s entry into the fray or a war with Iran, Syria or Hezbollah, Tel Aviv will most likely be targeted.
Hezbollah’s Fatah-110 and Scud missiles could do severe damage to Tel Aviv, Moshe Tiomkin, the city councilman in charge of defense and emergency management, believes.
However, the city, which last came under rocket fire during the 1991 Gulf War, is as well prepared as it can be, he told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Metro went to Tel Aviv to speak with residents, security experts and the municipality to gain an understanding of the city’s emergency response capabilities should the city come under fire.
Tiomkin, who served as the commander of the Tel Aviv Police, explains that the Tel Aviv Municipality, which bears responsibility for the city’s 400,000 civilian residents, has set up emergency command centers and has contracted with various building and construction companies to use their heavy digging and earth-moving equipment for rescue efforts should the city face a disaster.
Tel Aviv’s municipality, he says, works together with the army and the Home Front Command in coordinating emergency services and works closely with the local police.
He says there are three types of shelters in the city – private shelters in new apartments, building shelters and public shelters.
“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 says.
Among the public shelters recently constructed in the city are two megashelters 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-square-meter 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 Sourasky Medical Center and can hold between 700 and 1,000 hospital beds, also spread on four underground levels. This facility currently serves as a shortterm parking garage but is said to be almost instantly convertible for wartime usage.
While Tiomkin, as a city official, 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.
Jonathan Stein, a commuter who works for a Web design firm near the Azrieli Towers, says that for him, “It’s hard to say whether the municipality has adequately prepared me for a potential missile attack. I never saw any material from them in or around my building pointing in the direction of a shelter.” Stein says, “Supposedly, there is a bomb shelter in the basement of our building. In the unfortunate case that I’m walking on the street, I will not feel at all prepared and will not have a clue where to go other than to run for an office building that will probably have a shelter.”
With regard to Stein’s concerns, Tiomkin says that for those who do not live in the city and don’t know where the closest shelter is located, radio and television broadcasts would direct visitors to safety. However, that may be too little too late.
DESPITE THIS, Meir Elran, an expert at disaster management at the Tel Aviv University-based Institute for National Security Studies, says that Tel Aviv “is as well prepared as can be… in the short term.” Stating that Tel Aviv could do a lot to improve its disaster response in the long term, as there is always room for improvement, it is as well prepared as possible and is one of the best-prepared cities in the country.
However, he does say that many of the public bomb shelters are not well maintained and that the problems that exist have come about because the national government has decided “not to invest in this respect.”
“We are advancing, but are we totally covered? Absolutely not,” he says.
The mamad system, he continues, covers some 60 percent of houses and that even without a shelter, “you have a good chance… if you are not close to any windows.” Shrapnel is a bigger danger than a direct hit, he says.
Tel Aviv, he believes, is “relatively well prepared due to its status as one of the country’s wealthier municipalities. Its leadership is well oriented [toward security and civil defense], and Tel Aviv can be taken as a positive example. This doesn’t mean that it is perfect, but it is a positive example.”
The biggest issue facing Israel, Elran predicts, will be the limited coverage provided by the country’s active defense system embodied in the Iron Dome anti-missile system. During a war, he says the system will be used to protect air bases and other critical military and civilian infrastructure rather than citizens. The system is now deployed in large population centers as they are the target of the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees.
The focus on security issues, and Tel Aviv’s disaster management preparations at the expense of natural disasters such as earthquakes, is foolish as well, he says.
“Our preparedness depends on the extent of the magnitude of the risk, and one should not try to draw conclusions from what’s been happening in the last two or three days,” he cautions.
Asked what would bring about an attack on the center of the country, Elran says that the most “plausible scenario is if we find ourselves in a war with Hezbollah, [as] they have the capacity and the strategy” that would make a missile strike on Tel Aviv likely.
He also posits that such an eventuality would occur in a war with Iran or if Hamas gets drawn into the conflict in the South.
However , “Hamas’s capability to hit the center is not as extensive as Hezbollah’s,” he says. Hezbollah “has more in terms of launchers and missiles and a larger number of lethal warheads,” he explains.
“The worst scenario is both of them working together. This combination is less plausible but not impossible. We also have to take the Syrians and Iranians into consideration.”
Asked if the Syrians were likely to launch an attack on Israel should Bashar Assad feel his control over his regime slipping, Elran says he does not believe so. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, and we have to plan for all contingencies, but it is not plausible. It would mean that he was out of his mind.” In the end, both the INSS and the Tel Aviv Municipality believe that the city is as well prepared as it can be at the moment. However, this does not mean that there is not a lot of work left to undertake in the long run to make the city more capable of withstanding a largescale attack.
“We have to think long range because the story doesn’t end today,” says Elran, stating that reinforcing Tel Aviv’s civil defense system “is a long project.”
While the residents of the city may know where their shelters are and what to do in case of attack, it seems that the city, which is undergoing a massive preparatory drill in conjunction with the army this week, could do more to prepare its out-of-town workers and tourists for the possibility of incoming fire.