Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Israel Prepares for Some Dire Scenarios

Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM, Apr 14 2008 (IPS) - Salvo after salvo of missiles and rockets fired by Syria, Hezbollah and Gaza militants thudding into Israel’s major population centres. Hundreds dead. Thousands injured.

That’s the scenario Israel is preparing for, and it was the working assumption during the five-day civil defence drill conducted last week – the largest ever exercise of its kind in the country.

The nationwide drill included a simulated attack on the Haifa Bay area in northern Israel, which is packed with factories using hazardous chemicals. Another focused on coping with a non-conventional missile attack in a civilian area. And, one morning, an air raid siren sounded across the country sending school children scurrying for reinforced shelters.

Israeli leaders are deeply concerned about a scenario in which their cities come under a huge coordinated missile and rocket barrage. Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is also a member of the security cabinet, believes Israel could be confronted with a situation in which Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are hit by hundreds of missiles.

“Nowhere would be safe from Syrian and Hezbollah rockets,” said Ben-Eliezer, during the home front exercise.

The motivation for the latest drill was the serious operational failing on the home front during the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel during the month-long conflict, killing 40 civilians. That number might have been higher if not for the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis fled their homes in northern Israel and sought sanctuary further south, out of range of the rockets.

A report by the state comptroller last year found serious failings in the preparedness of the home front during the Lebanon war. The army’s Home Front Command, it said, had failed to take measures necessary to protect the public in the event of a missile strike on a site containing dangerous materials. The government, the report added, did not hold a single discussion on evacuating residents from northern Israel, and the army failed to send troops to help those residents who remained in their homes, many of them the elderly and the poor who did not have the means to leave.

Many bomb shelters were in a state of disrepair, making them uninhabitable for those who remained in their homes in the north. As a result, many residents spent hours in the stairwells of their apartment blocks – a reinforced area that can act as a makeshift shelter – taking refuge from Hezbollah rockets.

The report criticised Israel’s leaders, who it said were to blame for the home front’s lack of preparedness. “These are severe failures that have lasted for many years and have eroded the home front’s ability to safeguard the civilian population during war,” the report concluded.

Israel’s vulnerability to missile attack was first exposed during the Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein fired some 40 Scud missiles at major cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa. During that war, Israelis pulled on their gas masks and spent hours in rooms in their homes which they had sealed against a possible chemical attack. Ultimately, all the rockets turned out to have conventional warheads.

The government, fearing that a future missile attack could include chemical weapons, recently decided to redistribute gas masks to the public. The masks that had been distributed ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years ago have been collected over the last year. Unlike in 1991, no missiles were fired at Israel, and Israelis were spared having to open the masks, but they have passed their use by date.

Palestinian militants in Gaza have seized on the fact that Israel is unable to defend effectively against rocket attacks, and have peppered communities in the south of the country with rockets ever since former prime minister Ariel Sharon pulled the army and all the settlers out of the Gaza Strip in August 2005.

During the most recent round of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas in early March, Palestinian militants for the first time fired rockets at a major Israeli city, hitting the port city of Ashkelon which is located 10 miles north of Gaza and is home to some 120,000 people. “They used Grad rockets which don’t only have a longer range, they also have a bigger payload,” says Efraim Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

Israel believes that Iran, with its long-range missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel and its nuclear programme, poses the greatest threat to its security. Israel is convinced that the Iranian nuclear programme is aimed at producing a nuclear bomb and is not civilian in nature as Tehran insists.

The Arrow missile, which is meant to intercept and destroy incoming missiles, was developed by Israel to deal with the type of long-range threat posed by Iran’s Shihab missiles. But Israel still has no effective way of defending its home front from short and medium-range rockets, which were fired by Hezbollah during the war in Lebanon and which Syria possesses in large quantities.

In the absence of a “technological answer”, Inbar told IPS, defending the home front in a future war might require that Israel seize control of the area from where missiles are being fired at its population centres. “This might require capturing Gaza or, in the event of a war with Hezbollah, capturing south Lebanon,” he says. “Israel attempted to do this during the Lebanon war but it wasn’t successful.”

Ben-Eliezer isn’t the only Israeli leader concerned about the resilience of the Israeli public in wartime. In 2004, when Moshe Ya’alon was chief of staff, he pointed to what he said was the Israeli public’s lack of stamina as the weakest link in Israel’s national defence. Benny Ganz, who was head of Israel’s Northern Command between 2002-2005, once said he was more worried about the ability of the Israeli public to endure the pressures of war than he was by the threat posed by Hezbollah’s missiles.

Inbar believes these views underestimate the resolute nature of the Israeli public and its ability to withstand wartime pressures. Israelis, he insists, would have been willing to absorb greater casualties during the war in Lebanon if that was the price of curbing the threat posed by Hezbollah.

“I believe the civilian rear is ready,” he says. “Despite the missile attacks by Hezbollah, there was strong public support to continue the offensive (in Lebanon). The problem is with the government institutions. The public is strong.”

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