Could the Beirut explosion happen in Israel?

Recent event puts spotlight on danger of chemicals in home front.

A Lebanese army helicopter flies over the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area (photo credit: REUTERS/ISSAM ABDALLAH)
A Lebanese army helicopter flies over the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area
Physical and metaphorical smoke may obscure the picture of Tuesday’s enormous explosion in Beirut for some time.
But the event itself has already riled Israelis about what might happen with chemical facilities and other sensitive infrastructure on the Jewish state’s home front.
“We need to remove the dangerous chemicals from the Haifa Bay,” said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel to 103FM. “The plan is to remove the [chemicals] within five years and then [take] another five years to clean the area.”
Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich, chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, also stressed that Israel should be “very troubled.” She called to promote a plan to close Haifa’s petrochemical industry, “in the heart of a bay and a population.”
Haimovich said she will call a meeting with all relevant authorities to examine the state’s readiness for a disaster such as the one in Beirut, including prevention, risk management and preparedness.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, former Israeli deputy National Security Council chief Chuck Freilich said that the threat “is a severe one...  this week we got new confirmation from the state comptroller that there is a serious problem.
“It’s clear we are years behind in this field; not enough is being done,” Freilich said, noting that it took around 15 years to move the large ammonia facility in Haifa, which was moved in 2017.
While moving the facility may have been discussed for around 15 years, its move came less than two years after a direct threat from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in February 2016 to attack it with rockets to cause a near-nuclear-sized explosion.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said at the time that Nasrallah’s threat was likely directed at maintaining deterrence with Israel when much of Hezbollah’s forces were stuck in Syria.
Furthermore, it said that Nasrallah wanted to highlight the power of his forces’ precision missiles, and that he had made similar threats against Israeli infrastructure dating back to 2012.
However, the intelligence center said that Nasrallah’s insinuation – and exaggeration – that such a strike could cause a nuclear-size explosion succeeded in bringing the issue to the attention of the general Israeli public in an unprecedented way.
Freilich said that, “when people want, things can happen. Maybe the direct threat he made moved the priority” more front and center, but “it was not as if we were not aware of the problem.”
Despite that facility moving, there are still a large number of chemical and other sensitive facilities near Haifa population centers which may not be moved for another five years.
The Haifa Environmental Research Center stated on Wednesday that there are “1,500 aggregate risk areas and 800 types of dangerous chemicals in the Haifa Bay area, in factories right next to our bedrooms.”
The Shafir Report for examining risks in Haifa found that “factories and hazardous materials facilities in Haifa will be damaged in an emergency – as a factual determination.”
The former deputy National Security Council chief stated that chemical facilities in Haifa are only the tip of the iceberg of Israel’s problem.
“There are critical facilities all over the country – water, communications – and not all of them have been hardened and we don’t have enough Iron Dome batteries” or Iron Dome interceptors to prevent them from being struck by rockets.
“I’ve been arguing for years that Israel has to bite the financial bullet and invest in a national rocket shield,” he said.
“I am not talking about something totally hermetic,” Freilich said. “I am talking about two things: ending the current situation” where Israel has too few Iron Dome batteries, and having “to choose between defending military institutions, critical infrastructure and the civilian population – this is an intolerable situation.
Freilich continued: “Once we’ve done that, we need to reach a level of defense via Hezbollah like we did with Hamas,” where even if it fires rockets, “life pretty much goes on normally.”
Getting into concrete numbers, he said this could be done with around $7 billion to $10 billion in financing, five billion of which the US has already committed to and another two to five billion of which he said, “Israel can afford.”
In other words, Freilich’s message was that “we must decide where to put our defense money. Some into hardening and moving facilities out of population centers, but those are pinpointed defenses. If you want to provide [full] area defense, that is where anti rocket systems come in.”
Elaborating, he said that “you can’t move everything – and Israel’s tiny anyway” – limiting options for moving some facilities. “You can move really big things, like the ammonia facility in Haifa or the Pi Glilot facility” north of Tel Aviv – another move which took more than a decade.
He argued that “you must neutralize the threat, and that isn’t hardening. Hardening is a backup if you have anti-missile defense: the ability to destroy rockets offensively before they can hit or defensively [after they are launched]. And you need both because we do not have sufficient offensive capabilities” to stand alone – and defense by itself “isn’t a full answer either.”
Besides the lethal impacts of explosions, Freilich warns in his book, Israel National Security, that an attack on power stations around Hadera could “darken significant portions of the country. It would not only damage the civilian population, but how you run a modern economy” – and that Israel is “militarily dependent on civilian electrical power for most of what” it does.
Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.