Amid Talk of an Iran Strike, How Safe Is Israel's Home Front?

Israel's home front defense is in better shape than it was in the past, but chances are that in wartime, its missile-defense system will primarily secure strategic sites, not civilian populations.

Yona Yahav is worried. The veteran mayor of Haifa ran his city in an exemplary manner during the Second Lebanon War. When other local authorities in the north collapsed, six years ago, Haifa functioned. The municipality operated so-called war rooms, expropriated underground parking lots in malls and made them into play areas for children so their parents could keep going to work, and fought against major service providers that closed their offices in the city. In 2006, 85 percent of Haifa residents remained in the city despite the missile attacks.

"I realized that the time for whining was over," said Yahav after the month-long war. "If you yourself don't make a move, nothing will work. A big city is expected to take care of itself."

"Everything begins with the fact that I'm a coward," says Yahav, today. "A mayor doesn't have to be macho, but he has to prepare for any possible scenario. I'm worried, because I'm not sure that we know how to assess the severity of the future situation. Aren't we preparing for a scenario whose time has passed? The Home Front Command and the Home Front Defense Ministry are manned by excellent people. Our cooperation with them is good. There's no 'mañana' atmosphere. They're behaving as though it [a war] is taking place tomorrow morning. And still, when I ask how we will evacuate civilians from one place to another under fire, for example, I don't receive sufficiently convincing answers."

Yahav has improved emergency services in his city "because, when civilians feel city hall is in control, they're willing to stay around. Still, I won't condemn anyone who leaves in wartime. Even in 2006 I said that those who leave are still Haifans to me."

The municipality has created a program for schoolchildren to learn via the Internet from home, he adds: "I gave up on protected spaces at educational institutions. I have 146 schools and there's no chance we'll be able to provide protection for all of them. Haifa is not a city the size of Sderot, which can be protected fully in that way. Children won't attend school under missile fire. They'll study from home."

And still, to date, the mayor continues, the government has not instituted a policy according to which private firms would be compelled to provide vital services to citizens in the event of war.

Yahav: "Cell-phone companies, banks, Tnuva [dairy cooperative] - there's nobody who will force them to provide services for residents in areas under missile fire. That's elementary. Take the Carmel Tunnels [that run under Mt. Carmel]. They're an ideal place of refuge for thousands of residents, 200 meters below the ground, but the government has yet to decide whether to define them as a 'vital industry,' whose employees will be required to operate it even during wartime, although we've been talking about that for several years. Nor are we prepared for mass evacuation of civilians from the city. There have not been drills for such an eventuality. And there's the story of the ammonia tank in Haifa Bay - there's been a decision to move it from there by 2015. I do hope that they have spoken with [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and that he's willing to delay the missiles until then."

Last month the Home Front Command conducted a large-scale drill in Haifa, with the help of the municipality. The scenario included a chemical missile launched by Hezbollah that landed in the area of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. The results did not leave Yahav feeling especially calm.

Hezbollah, Iran's proxy

The discussion about home-front preparedness in recent months has been taking place mainly in the context of the debate over whether Israel should attack nuclear sites in Iran. Hezbollah is Iran's forward division, which is capable of attacking the Israeli home front with relative force, and it is hard to imagine a situation in which Hezbollah would refuse an Iranian order to respond with missiles if Iran is bombed. There is a reason why Tehran invested several billion dollars in the Lebanese Islamist organization over the past three decades.

But a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is also liable to develop independently, as was the case after the kidnapping of the IDF reservists in 2006. In hindsight, Western intelligence sources believe that at the time Tehran considered Nasrallah's move premature, that it unnecessarily revealed the organization's capabilities. But the present instability in Lebanon, with the ongoing collapse of President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria in the background, is now liable in extreme circumstances to serve as a detonator for an explosion.

Internal violence in Lebanon, as a consequence of the conflict in Syria, has been raging for several weeks. On Tuesday, for example, 12 people were killed and over 100 were injured in armed clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Most of the organizations and ethnic groups in the country are now amassing weapons in advance of a possible civil war.

Syria appears to be acting to exacerbate this tension. Michel Samaha, a Lebanese Christian and former government minister, and an ally of Bashar Assad and of Hezbollah, was arrested recently on suspicion of having planned a series of attacks against Sunni population centers. The Shi'ite organization itself has been forced to deal with increasingly urgent demands for its disarmament by politicians and journalists, who until recently refrained from talking about it in public for fear of Syria's reaction.

Now it seems that Hezbollah has become "fair game." The best evidence of this shift is the recent change in the viewpoint of fickle Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has already zigzagged several times between supporting and opposing the Syrian regime. Now, 10 months before the next elections in Lebanon, Jumblatt is once again about to abandon Assad.

We should not rule out the possibility that the Lebanese arena will flare up, even without any connection to the main issue: Iran's nuclear capability. It could happen in the wake of a Syrian attempt to transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah, but also due to a provocation by Nasrallah on the border, in light of his domestic problems. In July his organization demonstrated significant capability in the attack against Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, which left six dead and 32 wounded, and only about a month ago high-quality explosives were discovered in Israel, having been smuggled in by Hezbollah via Israeli Arab drug dealers.

Outgoing minister

Matan Vilnai, the outgoing Home Front Defense minister, took off Sunday night for Beijing, where he will serve as Israel's ambassador to China. We can assume that had Vilnai really thought that war with Iran was in the offing, he would not now have left the keys to the office in the hands of his friend Avi Dichter. Vilnai has kept to himself his opinion as to whether there is really a need to attack Iran. But when he looks back at his activity in recent years, the outgoing minister is quite pleased with the half-full glass.

Nobody denies that the handling of the home front has improved immeasurably since the trauma of 2006. The Home Front Defense Ministry and the National Emergency Authority were established, the buck-passing tendency which once characterized the various relevant government ministries has diminished, the local authorities began conducting frequent drills, and the Home Front Command also has a better understanding of its task now.

Vilnai points out additional achievements: The government has finally begun to protect strategic infrastructure sites from missiles. The IDF has assembled a list of 45 such sites, and in the coming years hundreds of millions of shekels will be invested in preparing defenses for them.

The communications networks of the various rescue services have been merged into one system over the past four years, at a cost of nearly NIS 1 billion. The police and the IDF communicate now on the same network and will soon be joined by the firefighters and Magen David Adom emergency services. Public awareness of the dangers has also increased, and one should not downplay the importance of citizens taking personal responsibility, and exhibiting cautious behavior and obedience to the instructions of the Home Front Command - all significant components of home front preparedness in an emergency.

But Vilnai, who worked tirelessly on home front defense for about five years (first as the deputy defense minister ), is also well aware of the challenges that remain. One of the main ones is legal. It is hard to believe, but over a year and a half after the establishment of the Home Front Defense Ministry, there is still no law spelling out the boundaries of authority and distribution of responsibility between it and the Defense Ministry, the Home Front Command and the National Emergency Authority. At the moment, the role of the ministry is important prior to a war, but will be negligible during the fighting itself. A home front draft bill is scheduled to reach the Knesset only during the next session.

Interceptions and perceptions

There is another significant disparity - between the public's perception of the quality of anti-missile protection provided by the deterrence systems, and the reality that can be expected in wartime. The Iron Dome functions well opposite Gaza, but the IDF has essentially only four functioning batteries at its disposal, but if it is to provide coverage to the entire country, it will need 13. The Magic Wand, the interception system for intermediate-range missiles (launched from a distance of 75 to 400 kilometers ) will be operational only in another two years. Arrow 2, for intercepting long-range missiles, has recently undergone significant improvements, but in about three years it will be upgraded again to a system called Arrow 3.

Because there are not enough Iron Domes, it is likely that in wartime these batteries will be used to secure strategic sites and air force bases, to ensure regular attack sorties. Interception of rockets aimed at a civilian population will be only a secondary task, and coverage will necessarily be partial and insufficient.

In itself, the fear of a reciprocal attack on the home front should not be seen as the only argument against hitting the nuclear sites in Iran, for a simple reason: In the new regional reality, any significant conflict will include missiles on Israel's home front. There is a reasonable chance that even a smaller-scale military conflict, in Lebanon and even in Gaza, will exceed the boundaries of the peripheral areas (a limitation to which we have wrongly become accustomed ) and will also affect the greater Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem.

The launching of missiles and rockets against the Israeli home front provides the Arab answer to the aerial, intelligence and technological supremacy of the IDF. The tactic first tried when missiles were fired from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, which was further developed in 2006, will be used even more forcefully in the next round.

In the statistical dispute between writer Yoram Kaniuk, who is afraid that there will be tens of thousands of dead, and the unnamed "decision maker" Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit interviewed recently - presumably Defense Minister Ehud Barak - the latter is probably correct. The number of pre-state Palmach commando fighters who died in 1948 will be higher, proportionately, than the losses on the home front in the event of war. But we also have to recall that war is very difficult to predict: We have to take into account unexpected mishaps and a prolonged campaign that could significantly increase the number of dead, beyond the several hundreds predicted by the defense establishment.

Uzi Rubin, the veteran missile expert who in the past was the head of the Homa administration - which coordinates the Arrow missile project - is more pessimistic with regard to casualty estimates than the defense establishment. For years he warned about the slowness of Israel's preparations for missile interception. Now he sees progress, but not at the desirable pace.

"I admire the IDF operational research experts," says Rubin, "but they are underestimating the element of uncertainty. The result is that people are talking with certainty about a forecast that could be right and could be wrong. It's true that these experts were relatively correct in their low casualty assessment in the Gulf War, but many things didn't work at the time for the Iraqis, including missiles that landed in population centers and didn't explode.

"In the present instance, we're talking about larger numbers. Everyone remembers that only one Israeli was killed by a missile in 1991, but who remembers the 27 U.S. Marines who were killed [during the same war] by a direct hit from a Scud missile at a base in Saudi Arabia?"

Rubin says that we started working on interception "too late and too slowly. The Iron Dome is now progressing at a hectic pace. The achievements are impressive, but it should have happened earlier. A strategic gap has been created here." Rubin, like Vilnai, knows that the enemy too has not been idle in the years since the Second Lebanon War. Today, it has more missiles and rockets, which travel further and hit more accurately.

What none of the experts is saying out loud is that even seven years from now, the home front will not be fully covered against incoming missiles. There cannot be a huge transparent dome that will protect the entire country. The civilian home front will be a war front in any conflict scenario. The decision makers will have to decide how to minimize the risks, and will need to thoroughly examine the feasibility of any decision to take the offensive, in light of the anticipated outcome on the home front.