The Battle for the Home Front: Who Will Be Responsible for Israel's Citizens in the Next War?

A bureaucratic war is being fought far from the public gaze, and its outcome may have far-reaching implications for the protection of the Israeli public in wartime.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

GOC Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg is very worried these days. In HFC, worry is a job requirement. While the other generals plan battle-winning maneuvers and surprise, in-depth attacks on the enemy, Eisenberg has to think about more prosaic matters, such as ensuring that the civilian population has food and a power supply when under fire.

These days, however, Eisenberg’s worries have a different cause. Behind the scenes, he is waging a rearguard action to prevent responsibility for the home front from being divided among a number of authority-hungry government ministries. If he fails, the implications for the quality of protection offered the Israeli public in wartime could be far-reaching.

The limitations of the Israeli home front were first exposed in the Gulf War of 1991. Again in 2006, in the Second Lebanon War − as depicted in the State Comptroller’s Report − Israel was caught with its pants down. For 34 days, rockets rained down on a third of the country, and the authorities were helpless.

A bureaucratic battle, one about which the public is unaware, is currently raging. Eisenberg isn’t talking about it in public, and the army, too, remains tight-lipped. If the issue is coming to the attention of the public, it is thanks to a number of people who have accumulated many years of experience in dealing with emergency situations.

“In principle, it makes a great deal of sense to rearrange the way the home front is dealt with, and even to remove some powers from the Israel Defense Forces,” one of these people tells Haaretz. “But what’s taking place now is a kind of coup, and the results in a war could be disastrous. Everyone who understands something about the home front understands that this is an insane move. My hair stands on end when I think about it.”

Since the unexpected summer of social protest in 2011, Israelis have become more aware of the tortuous and untenable way in which decisions are made in government ministries. Just this week, social activists took to the streets to demand that greater restrictions be placed on the export of the yield from Israel’s natural gas reserves. The question of who will manage the civilian rear in a war − a question with implications for hundreds of lives − is not getting similar attention, for the time being.

This week the IDF again ran an exercise simulating a total, multi-arena war, in which the air force and elements of the ground forces took part. As usual in recent years, much of the drill was devoted to ways of coping with the threat to Israel’s civilian population. Even if the slew of enemies − Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas − are no longer as coordinated among themselves as they used to be, because of the rift between Shi’ites and Sunnis generated by the ongoing Syrian civil war, they share a common understanding: that Israel’s great advantage in a war situation lies in the attack capability of its air force. Accordingly, the enemy will have to act quickly and powerfully to offset that advantage.

“A slide into war can happen quickly and surprisingly,” an officer with the rank of general said this week. If a war breaks out, the enemy will try to balance the picture by delivering a devastating blow to the home front. Thousands of rockets will be fired at population centers, civilian infrastructure sites ‏(Ben-Gurion International Airport, the seaports, power facilities‏), air force bases and centers of reservist mobilization. The aim will be twofold: to cause casualties that will burn a trauma into the collective Israeli consciousness, and to disrupt the IDF’s ability to deploy and thus launch an offensive.

Closing the gap

In the past two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has devoted more time to dealing with the home front, frequently convening the home front forum of select ministers and generals he has at his disposal. Netanyahu believes that the Arabs are ahead of Israel in terms of formulating a combat doctrine regarding the civilian rear, and in accumulating weapons to attack the home front. His conclusion: Israel must close the gap by acquiring more antimissile systems and by enhancing its defensive deployment.

With that as the point of departure, a document was prepared that is now at the heart of the bureaucratic battle. Titled “National Security Doctrine for the Home Front,” it was drawn up by the National Security Council in December 2012.

Authored by Brig. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Ze’ev Zuk-Ram − the deputy head of the NSC and a former head of the National Emergency Authority − the document was supposed to have come up for discussion yesterday in the home front forum. However, under pressure from the Defense Ministry and the IDF, the discussion was postponed. The ideas being put forward by Zuk-Ram are acceptable to two ministries: the Home Front Defense Ministry and the Public Security Ministry. But the two operative bodies concerned − Home Front Command and the Israel Police − find them appalling.

What the NSC is proposing, at bottom, is that the bulk of the responsibility for the civilian rear be taken from the Defense Ministry and the IDF. The powers that currently reside with Home Front Command would be divided between the two ministries. The Home Front Defense Ministry would handle budgets and the regulation of vast areas such as the protection of buildings, and the manufacture and distribution of gas masks. ‏(The ministry also wants responsibility for preparing local governments for an emergency situation and for information activity geared to the public.‏)

As for the Public Security Ministry, it would create a National Guard to centralize all the emergency and rescue services: police, HFC, firefighting and emergency medical services. The IDF would continue to provide personnel and logistical support for the home front forces, but, other than that, HFC would effectively act as an operative contractor for the civilian bodies.

There is a certain temptation embodied in this plan for the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff. Managing the home front is a giant headache in wartime, when their focus is otherwise on the battlefronts. Why not transfer the responsibility to other ministers, thereby resolving the anomaly by which civilian services in wartime are subordinate to the dominant authority of officers in uniform from HFC?

It is also obvious why the plan is so appealing to the two other ministers. The Home Front Defense Ministry was born in sin, two and a half years ago. It was a political improvisation to accommodate then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who wanted to remain in the previous Netanyahu government after bolting from the Labor Party with a few others. It became necessary to upgrade the status of his then-deputy, Matan Vilnai, to ministerial rank − and the result was the almost instant creation of the Home Front Defense Ministry.

It remains a weak ministry today, its necessity in great doubt. Now, though, it is headed by a politician with clout, Gilad Erdan ‏(Likud‏), who displayed exceptional media visibility in the national home front exercise last month. If Erdan ultimately decides not to accept the appointment as ambassador to Washington, the Home Front Defense Ministry could be his ticket to the front rank of the leadership. The problem is that, by the same token, he could end up organizing himself a one-way ticket to the commission of inquiry that − and this is by now a ritual − will be established here immediately after the next war.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also sees advantages to the NSC concept. A newly formed National Guard would vest his ministry with a new status, involving more powers and a major budget increase. The police force, though, is far less enthusiastic than its minister, mostly because of the clause in the document stating that, in wartime, all the other bodies ‏(IDF, rescue forces, Interior Ministry district commissioner‏s) will be subordinated to the commanders of the relevant police district.

Some top policemen are horrified by the prospect of this new responsibility. A neighborhood that has been hit by missiles, they say, is not a murder scene or even a suicide bomb-attack scene. Nor can the handling of the damage caused by a few rockets hitting Ashkelon be compared to the scale of the challenge that awaits in a war affecting the center of the country. That particular expertise is best left in the hands of the IDF.

‘Years of neglect’

The background to the dispute lies in the traumas of the past. After the first Gulf War, the IDF distanced itself from the traditional roles of the Civil Defense Corps and aid to the population. Home Front Command, the body erected on the ruins of the Civil Defense Corps, initially found itself executing prestigious missions such as civilian rescue operations and assisting countries where natural disasters had struck.

The basic assumption was that when the need arose, local government would flex its muscles and cope with the burden. The increasing weakness of the municipalities was not taken into account, nor, more important, the changing character of the threat. It no longer consists of sporadic bombing runs by Arab air forces; it now involves massive volleys of rockets capable of paralyzing whole cities.

In the Second Lebanon War, while Home Front Command talked about assisting the residents of the Galilee region − which was enduring daily shelling − the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, demanded that HFC concentrate purely on rescue missions. Leave the bomb shelters and the provision of food to the local governments, he said. “It took us two weeks of war to get our act together,” a senior officer in GOC Northern Command related afterward, “and along the way we ‘lost’ cities such as Safed, Nahariya and Acre, whose municipalities barely functioned.

“Since the 2006 war,” the officer continued, “HFC has returned to dealing with civilian self-defense and has improved its ability considerably. HFC also tightened its ties with the municipalities and the local councils, after years of neglect.” The argument put forward by HFC, which is accepted by the defense minister and the chief of staff ‏(though less emotionally‏), is that HFC cannot be the servant of so many masters: the IDF and three civilian ministries (Home Front, Public Security and Defense). Orders, certainly in an emergency situation, have to arrive via one clear and organized hierarchic channel. The concern is that the NSC proposal is not yet fully worked out, and that an attempt to accelerate its implementation is liable to find the home front unprepared − should a test come in the next few years. HFC maintains that only the IDF is capable of coping with a threat of this scale, the more so because surveys show that the public relies only on the army in such a situation.

If HFC is subordinated to an operational chain of command headed by the police, it will quickly find itself an orphan. How, for example, will the police get intelligence in real time about intentions to fire rockets, when that information comes from an external body ‏(Military Intelligence‏) whose order of priorities in war are different and which has effectively been stripped of direct responsibility for events on the home front?

According to a source with a great deal of experience in emergency situations, “The leap from fighting crime to protecting the civilian rear is more than the police can handle. The largest unit the police maintains normally is a company in the Special Patrol Unit. How do you move from there to managing battalions of rescue forces? And how will a police district commander, who normally chases criminals, move to managing the defense of hundreds of thousands of civilians in an emergency? The policemen won’t know where to start. We were already burned in 2006 in the civilian rear. I simply cannot understand why they want to jump into this trap again, without a basic examination of the implications. This isn’t something you decide in one fell swoop.”

A senior source in the Public Security Ministry said that, in the opinion of Minister Aharonovitch, the handling of the civilian rear needs to be organized at the national level. “The rationale is simple: The IDF is responsible from the border outward and the police from the border inward. In any event, the IDF will not have time to occupy itself with the civilian rear in a war. The intention is not to civilianize HFC but to take over its operational implementation in an emergency. The police and the ministry need to do this, because they have a relative advantage in working with civilians and with the municipalities. The police have made great strides in command and control over the past few years, and they are capable of coping with this challenge.”

Israeli soldiers of the Home Front Command rescue unit wear protective gear during a drill in Azur, near Tel Aviv, Israel, May 28, 2013.Credit: AP
Home Front Commander Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg (right) and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan at last month’s preparedness exercise.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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