Illustration: Israeli leaders riding on an Iranian missile - Eran Wolkowski
Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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There are a number of ways one could understand the leaked security cabinet briefing that Channel 10 reported Monday night, which detailed expectations of a worst-case scenario of an all-out war with Iran on all fronts, resulting in a three-week bombardment and up to 300 civilian casualties.

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For a start, it would seem that the leaked briefing was put out by someone in the cabinet who is interested in allaying the Israeli public's fears of the repercussions of a military strike on Iran. Four months ago, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to play down the fears, he said in a radio interview that "war is no picnic but in no scenario is the 50, 000 and not 5,000 and not even 500 killed." So if Barak felt that less than 500 dead civilians was an acceptable price to pay, less than 300 is a bargain.

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But where are these numbers coming from? According to Channel 10, the assessment was given by officers of the air-force, but this isn't their job. The Israeli Air Force has an operations-research department whose role, among other things, is to assess how the corps units will perform during warfare. The department has already prepared reports for each airbase assessing the number of missiles that can be expected to hit each of the bases, how that will affect the squadrons and what steps have to be taken to ensure the bases can continue operating. It is the Israel Defense Force Home Front Command's job to make the assessments of how civilian centers will be affected, how many buildings will be hit and the likely number of civilian casualties. Early last year, the local authorities were issued with the likely scenarios and Colonel Adam Zussman, commander of Dan region in the Home Front Command, said in an interview with Haaretz that hundreds of casualties can be expected in and around Tel-Aviv.

The damage-assessments being prepared by both the air-force and Home Front Command are based on the same intelligence reports prepared by the Military Intelligence branch. In any case, the estimations of casualties are not meant for media purposes - to frighten or reassure the public - but to enable the IDF, local authorities, government departments and the civilian emergency services to prepare for the worst-case scenario. But in the hands of politicians, these numbers become part of a cynical game.

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The numbers are based on a series of assumptions, including the air-force's belief that in the space of three weeks it will be able to locate most of the missile launchers in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip and take them out, and the Home Front Command's assurance that, together with the police and local authorities, it can ensure the public follow instructions, take cover when necessary, and that a panicked mass exodus of targeted areas can be prevented.

Despite the improved accuracy of the missiles in the hands of Hezbollah, the Syrian Army, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, when launched against civilian areas, they are still "statistical weapons." In other words it's all down to luck. The same missile could land in an open field or blow apart a crowded school or hospital. And while the Israel Air Force successfully destroyed most of Hezbollah's medium and long-range missile launchers at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Shia movement still had enough missiles to carry on firing toward the north of Israel throughout the 34 days of the conflict.

Another major variable that will affect the numbers of casualties is the possible reluctance of some of the players, who are normally regarded as Iranian proxies, to get involved in a fresh war that would only bring about more destruction and suffering on their side. Hamas already seems to be seriously considering keeping out of this one. Some of the movement's officials have recently said that they wouldn't launch missiles against Israel following a strike on Iran. Rapidly changing events may also cause its army to refrain from joining the fray, and who knows, perhaps even Hezbollah will have seconds thought on jeopardizing its political position in Lebanon just to help out its Iranian patrons.

Meanwhile, while all these balls are up in the air, the politicians will continue playing with numbers.