An Exercise in Public Relations

What must be understood from the recent Home Front Command drill is that its public relations campaign concealed an unpleasant truth from the people: The home front's situation is even worse than it used to be.

The civil defense exercise Turing Point 3 was a success, as expected. There were a few towns and neighborhoods where the sirens could not be heard, and in many places, shelters were in no condition to take people in. But as explained by the person in charge of preparing the home front for an emergency, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, "it's good that we are identifying the gaps during an exercise and not at a moment of truth."

The problem is that this was a public relations exercise. In reality, the home front's situation remains as bleak as it was three years ago, during the Second Lebanon War.

The exercise mimicked a two-week war during which Israel is fighting on three fronts - Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip - and absorbing barrages of missiles and rockets. But if that happens, the home front will once again be paralyzed, as it was in the north during the Second Lebanon War. Three years have gone by, but still no solution has been found for the rocket threat. The billions of shekels invested in developing defense systems against rockets have not yet produced a solution, and it is doubtful that these systems will be effective even after development is completed.

Hezbollah has stockpiled more than 40,000 rockets in southern Lebanon, and Hamas has thousands of rockets in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, all the public can do in a rocket attack is sit in shelters. But running to a shelter does not need to be practiced in a national civil defense exercise accompanied by massive media coverage.

And if missiles and rockets armed with chemical warheads were launched at the home front, the situation would be even bleaker. A significant portion of the civilian population does not have gas masks, and some of the masks in the public's hands are not fit for use. Though the Israel Defense Forces embarked with great fanfare on an operation to collect the masks in order to fix them and return them to the public, the operation "got stuck."

"The low proportion of masks that are fit for use will not enable the protection of most inhabitants of the State of Israel if the country is attacked with chemical weapons," wrote the state comptroller in a report published about two years ago. "Moreover, since a chemical attack could occur on short notice, there is a fear that even if markets were found for purchasing masks abroad, it would not be possible to import all the types of protective kits [needed] within the amount of time required."

That is why the civil defense exercise completely ignored the scenario of a chemical warfare attack and included no practice in donning gas masks. The public was asked to enter shelters when the siren went off, but it was not asked to carry gas masks, which are not available.

One of the aims of the exercise was, almost certainly, to rehabilitate the public's faith in the Home Front Command after its failure in the summer of 2006. It is not clear whether this goal was achieved, because it seems that most of the public related to the exercise with total indifference. What must be understood, however, is that the public relations campaign for this exercise concealed an unpleasant truth from the people: The home front's situation is even worse than it used to be.

During the 1950s and 1960s, schools in the United States carried out civil defense drills against atomic bombs. In the absence of a solution for intercepting Soviet missiles, children would practice what was called "duck and cover": When the alarm went off, the children and their teachers would scramble under their desks and cover their heads with their hands. This would not, of course, protect anyone from an atomic bomb, but the policymakers decided they had to do something to give the public a feeling that a solution existed to the Soviet nuclear threat.

Last week, when the siren went off in Netivot, 200 students at the Netivei Or School, which has no shelter, ducked and hid under the tables and read Psalms. It would seem that this event better than anything symbolizes the bleak truth about the home front in the first decade of the 21st century.