Vilnai
Vilnai touring the drill headquarters Monday. ““There are a great many innovations in this drill from the operational point of view.” Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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This is the fourth time that Maj. Gen. (res. ) Matan Vilnai has been in charge of Turning Point, the national home front defense exercise. On previous occasions, however, he did so as deputy defense minister with special responsibility for home front defense, among other things, while this year, he is a full minister - the minister for home front defense. Following his departure from the Labor Party together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the subsequent establishment of the Atzmaut party, Vilnai received a new ministry whose exact structure and powers are not yet clear.

Matan Vilnai, this is the fourth year in which the Turning Point drill is being conducted with sirens sounding all over the country. It seems as if we have almost gotten used to it. Do you think you have anything new to say to the public?

"Correct, this has already become a permanent annual event. But there are always new issues. The main issue we want to make the public aware of is that there is a threat that we must be prepared for.

"We act on a great many levels, from the national level of the central government through the local councils, the emergency organizations and the Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command, and coordination among all of these needs to be constantly improved. The second issue is promoting awareness among the citizens that this could always happen."

This Turning Point drill simulates a scenario in which hundreds of missiles land in populated areas of Israel, causing thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of evacuations. To what extent is that genuinely realistic?

"The State of Israel has a very high level of deterrence against its enemies. We are testing something against which we have a deterrent, and all our enemies know that if they attack our home front, the Israeli response will be so severe that they must weigh whether to start this at all. They also know that we are capable of hitting their launchers and intercepting their missiles. But the last line of defense is the civilian population's ability to withstand this, and the heart of the matter is citizen awareness."

What is happening this year that is nevertheless new?

"There are a great many innovations in this drill from the operational point of view. A large portion of the public will receive alerts through their cell phones. Today, there will be two sirens - one in the morning so that everyone can practice at his work place, and the second in the evening so that everyone can practice with his family at home. What is necessary is for people to practice what they must do in the place where they find themselves.

"We want to inculcate the message that a person's home is the most protected place there is. That is the solution that proves itself. Therefore, what we are asking of the citizens is to devote several minutes of thought to the subject."

But until now, most of the public has not taken part, despite the sirens. Last year, according to figures from the Home Front Command, only 47 percent of Israel's citizens participated.

"I am happy about every percentage point above zero, because I know that the moment it is real, it will be 100 percent. Therefore, everyone who participates - and I hope it will be as high a percentage as possible - is good for me."

Nevertheless, the sirens are merely a small part of the drill, the part that most of the public is exposed to.

"The most important part of the drill is the coordination of government systems on the home front. I don't like using the word oref [Hebrew for 'rear'], because everyone knows by now that in the next war, the civilian side will be a front in every sense of the word.

"There are hundreds of organizations that all speak Hebrew, but not one of them actually understands the other. The public does not see this, but coordination among them is the heart of the matter. During the exercise, we will ask ourselves how one functions in a situation like that."

After all the annual drills, and the work you do all year long, do you feel there has been any progress on this matter?

"There has been improvement, because people now understand that they are part of a system. When the fire broke out on Mount Carmel, ministers telephoned me and asked what to do in such a situation. They understood that we are a center that takes care of matters like that. It's not one ministry or another, it's the entire Israeli government, which can coordinate all the necessary actions among itself."

But nevertheless, the blaze on Mount Carmel actually revealed our lack of readiness to deal with a large-scale emergency that involves fighting fires.

"The Carmel fire revealed a weak link - one we had actually already known about for decades, in effect since the 1960s. Our firefighting system was weak, but local government as a whole functioned excellently. We evacuated thousands of citizens, we evacuated hospitals - people have forgotten this. People of course remember the terrible tragedy of the bus full of prison wardens, but they don't remember that the governmental system functioned.

"We learned a great many other things on the Carmel. The main lesson was that we rely on local governments; the local councils are our forward units. We must bolster local governments, because they are the people who know the area best, who select the people who can work the quickest. Within a year, every local council and municipality will have a fortified operations center and appropriate communications equipment. We are working with 250 local councils on this matter."

If the issue of civilian coordination on the home front during an emergency is so critical, why is it that the ministry you head was set up only now, as a result of the political maneuver that split the Labor Party?

"There is nothing political here. We have a ministry like this just like every other properly run country in the world does, though they face smaller threats than we do. Every country I visit has a ministry of this kind. The moment there is a minister, things look different.

"This has nothing to do with leaving the Labor Party; the Second Lebanon War proved that we need such a ministry. Most other countries reached this conclusion years ago.

"I am under no delusions that this ministry will receive powers from other ministries. What - we should set up a complete Health Ministry for emergencies? The ministry's role is to be the body that organizes and coordinates the operations."