Breaking With Historic Consensus, Israel Plans to Evacuate 78,000 People in the Event of Hezbollah War

While likely to spark heated debate, senior officer tells Haaretz the plan 'could knock the ground out from under Hezbollah's moves. It will find the place empty of inhabitants and will have to deal with IDF fighters.'

An evacuation drill in northern Israel, September 2016.
Gil Eliyahu

The Israel Defense Forces has drawn up plans to evacuate civilian communities in the North in the event of war with Hezbollah, Haaretz has learned. The move marks a stark departure from consensus Israeli doctrine and is likely to spark heated debate.

Ostensibly, this is a deviation from the defense ethos of Kibbutz Negba in the battles with the Egyptians on the southern front in the War of Independence, an ethos that became entrenched and nearly sanctified since then: Israel does not evacuate civilians and does not abandon communities under military attack by the enemy, at any price. Any withdrawal from a single centimeter will be considered a failure, even a defeat.

In truth, other locales have had their civilian populations evacuated and even abandoned, including in 1948 and in the Yom Kippur War in the Golan Heights. In any case, the IDF is not talking about withdrawing its forces but rather about an evacuation of civilians, as orderly as possible, from the conflict zone during hostilities to reduce civilian casualties and enable the army to defend these locales more effectively.

Despite their awareness of the expected criticism, during this past year Aviv Kochavi and Home Front Command head Yoel Strick – who will replace Kochavi as head of Northern Command next year, when the latter becomes deputy chief of staff – have been formulating a comprehensive action plan called Safe Distance. The plan, the details of which are being published here for the first time, is intended to be put into effect from the moment war breaks out in the north or, in the case of an intelligence warning, in the hours before the fighting begins.

It relates to the communities in the range of up to four kilometers from the border with Lebanon, more or less congruent with the range of the heavy Burqan rockets, and to a number of additional locales that are considered relatively vulnerable. The plan covers about 50 communities, home to about 78,000 people. Twenty-two of the locales are within only one kilometer of the border.

In the strip within a kilometer of the border, the population numbers 24,000, including the residents of two relatively large population centers, the town of Shlomi and moshava (agricultural village) Metulla. Apparently publication of the plan is aimed at instilling awareness among the inhabitants, coordinating expectations with them in advance and making it clear that in time of need there will be an organized procedure in place, not a disorganized scramble to flee.

A senior officer in Northern Command told Haaretz that evacuating the locales “could knock the ground out from under Hezbollah’s moves. Even if a Radwan unit manages to penetrate into a community, it will find the place empty of inhabitants and will have to deal with IDF fighters. This will pull the rug out from under their plans. We are now completing the preparation for a case in which we will have to implement this plan in the future. If a war breaks out, the final decision to evacuate civilians will, of course, be in the hands of the government.”

An evacuation drill in northern Israel, September 2016.
Gil Eliyahu

Col. Itzik Bar, commander of the northern district of Central Command, says: “It is necessary to weigh things carefully, without tying ourselves up in doctrinal knots. During fighting, the IDF has to ensure delivery of vital services to locales under attack, provide them with warnings of rocket fire in their area and save the lives of people who have been hit. When the threat level in a community adjacent to the border is so high that it is difficult for you to promise this, the right thing will be to act in a different way and consider evacuation.”

Lt. Col. Yaniv Krief, regional defense officer of the Galilee Formation that is responsible for the border with Lebanon, says the army estimates that not all the inhabitants will want to or be able to be evacuated. In Northern Command they believe that about 40 percent of the residents will leave independently. Others will need help.

According to Krief, “Close to one quarter of the inhabitants of communities close to the fence hold positions that will require them to stay: reservists, community functionaries, medical personnel and workers in essential industries. There will certainly also be people who will prefer to remain in their homes, for their own reasons.”

In ordinary times the Defense Ministry funds routine security coordinators in every community and preparedness groups that act in coordination with the IDF units responsible for the border. In times of emergency, the army will dispatch units from infantry brigade training bases to the communities, consisting of soldiers who are in the final stages of their training. Later, battalions from the Home Front Command rescue brigade will come.

During the first days of a war, in time of need these battalions will deal with rescuing casualties and, together with forces from Northern Command, will help arrange the evacuation of residents to more distant locations. The assumption is that at least part of the evacuation will be carried out while the communities are under fire.

The National Emergency Authority is assigned to help transfer inhabitants out of the locales by bus and bring them to intake centers in places determined in advance, far from the border. There too, of course, there will not be complete immunity from Hezbollah rockets but there is a considerable difference in the risk level of places adjacent to the border and those in the center and south of the country.

There are plans to evacuate inhabitants of specific communities to Jerusalem, Eilat, the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements near Tul Karm and Jenin. Col. Bar says the evacuation will be to hotels, hostels and if necessary to educational institutions that will be adapted as temporary housing for civilians.

If implemented well, there’ll be no shame

A similar plan is in the works for the south near Gaza. The IDF believes that a war with Hezbollah would probably be accompanied by one with Hamas, though not vice versa.

Every region to be evacuated has been paired with another; the regions, the national emergency authority and the Home Front Command will make sure evacuees have a place to go. The plan was first rehearsed as part of a September exercise in the Galilee in which two moshavim –Ya’ara and Dishon – practiced an evacuation.

The plan has already been presented to the local council heads in the north, who have been given estimates of their expected casualty numbers during a war. The officials in every community will know the place where their people will be going.

Lt. Col. Yaniv Krief, an officer near the Lebanese border, says the main difficulty would be evacuating the elderly, the ill, the physically impaired and children. Therefore, close coordination is necessary with the communities, especially their security, welfare and education authorities.

Another challenge is managing the traffic. The authorities will have to ensure that buses evacuating people south won’t block military vehicles heading north. The army is expected to recommend the evacuation of communities near the border fence, but the final decision will be with the government.

“If we prepare this well now, in real time the measure won’t be perceived as running away. There’s no reason for civilians to remain exposed here during fighting. We aren’t talking about the battles of 1948,” Krief says, referring to Israel’s War of Independence.

“We aren’t going to force people to evacuate. We’ll evacuate the people who are interested in that – and the surveys of population behavior we’ve conducted show that most residents will agree to leave if there’s a war.”

A senior officer in the north adds: “Clearly there will be a debate on whether to evacuate, because of the symbolic and psychological significance of such a measure. In the army, we have to be prepared for this.”

Yossi Baranes is the civilian security coordinator at Moshav Zarit on the border. In July 2006, the abduction of reserve soldiers nearby helped spark the Second Lebanon War.

“The moshav is exposed on 270 degrees of its perimeter to flat-trajectory fire from Lebanon,” he says. “We know that Hezbollah’s rockets are aimed at our homes.”

In the last war, Baranes says, more than half the population left, but not in an orderly way.

“There were farmers who stayed because it was necessary to look after the poultry coops. But we realize that the Third Lebanon War will be entirely different. I see the films that Al Jazeera broadcasts from the war in Syria and I understand what Hezbollah’s new capabilities will be here,” he says.

“There’s a military base not far from here and it’s a kind of magnet that will draw Hezbollah to attack us as well. The residents here are aware of the danger and they know that next time we’ll have to act differently.”

Baranes coordinates a community emergency team of education, medical and welfare people. He has a data file with full contact details for every family and every school attended by children from Zarit.

“A preparedness group will remain here, and a few officials. Only after the war will we have to deal with the economic damage, with help from the state,” Baranes says. “I don’t intend to be an evacuation policeman. I won’t force anyone to leave, but I don’t think that in the end anyone will insist on staying if he doesn’t have a role.”

Another senior officer involved in the planning says the idea of evacuating communities during a war went through a painful process until it was adopted by the General Staff.

“A year and a half ago, when we brought this up in exercises, they barely agreed to discuss the idea. The approach at the moment is that the IDF will prepare a plan and the government will decide in real time. It isn’t clear that this is enough,” the officer says.

“It’s better to have an agreement in advance, but I can understand that the cabinet ministers are reluctant about this. They’re afraid of a label of running away.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said during a recent visit to the Northern Command that the army must strive for no community to be occupied by Hezbollah.

“If that’s what the government wants, the necessary conclusion is evacuation,” the officer says. “Only that way will it be possible to defend locales without civilians finding themselves in the middle of the battle.”

Read More: Israeli Army digging in against possible Hezbollah incursion