Israelis on Gaza Border Anxious After IDF Pulls Plug on Private Rocket Alarm Apps

Public rejects army decision to stop third-party alert system because it sows panic, and insists official alarm app is insufficient

The interior apartment building sits destroyed after being hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israel, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have been landing on southern Israel for 18 years, preceded in recent times by "Red Alert" text messages. The alerts themselves come from the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command, but the smartphone applications have been launched by private companies. It is debatable whether the apps actually alleviate anxiety among Israelis living on the volatile border. But since the command unilaterally decided a few weeks ago to deny unofficial apps access to its information, the level of fear among locals seems to have risen.

In the last week alone more than 1,500 Israelis have signed petitions urging the IDF to backtrack and allow the app alerts, on the grounds that the official messages from the Home Front Command are inadequate.

“They’re pulling the rug out from under out feet,” says the resident of one kibbutz near the Gaza border.

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The command app only warns of an impending rocket attack in three locales, whereas the private initiatives are not limited in scope. The army accuses the unofficial app announcements of a high rate of false alarms, and explains that its purpose in shutting down the system is to preclude gratuitous panic among residents, “as has been observed for years.”

The private 'Red Alert' app that sends notifications about incoming rockets from Gaza rockets.

One high-ranking officer suggested that reducing the app option means the alerts will reach people’s smartphones faster, potentially saving lives.

For one, Shai Cohen, who lives near the border with the Strip, is not convinced. “When there’s rocket fire, wherever it is, I care,” he says. “I live this. If I know where they’re firing now, it makes me more alert.”

Cohen suspects the Home Front Command was motivated to ban the private apps more by pride and ego than by the greater good. He noted that the apps are helpful, either issuing warnings for areas defined by the user – or everywhere.

Some inhabitants of the southern part of the country have long suspected that the IDF paints a rosier-than-necessary picture of events on the ground and believe, for example, that not all the incendiary kite and balloon attacks are being reported. Since people suspect they are being kept in the dark by the army, they are glad to get more, unfiltered information from the apps, says another resident, who asked to remain anonymous. She said she'd rather get false alarms than have unannounced rockets fall on her home.

Tehila Revivo, director of the Sha'ar Hanegev regional council's Hosen Center, which helps people contend with stressful situations, says less news is usually better when it comes to anxious people. Hosen's staff recommends that people reduce their news consumption and make do with what the council advises and provides, but Revivo acknowledges that a lot of people take comfort in the private apps system, because the text messages give them a feeling of greater control amid the chaos.

The most popular app is called “Tzeva adom” (Red Alert), and it has been downloaded by an estimated half-a-million people, whereas some 50,000 people use the official app devised by Home Front Command.

A source there told Haaretz that there are plans to add seven more towns, bringing the total to 10, but if the army discovers that such a move causes a system overload, leading to delays in alerts – the upgrade will be canceled. He stressed that all their activities serve the good of Israel's civilian population.

The IDF spokesman pointed out that it is the job of Home Front Command to warn residents about impending threats, and to ensure maximal exposure to information, and says that private initiatives had anyway just been disseminating alerts appearing on command website. However, following complaints of false alerts – the army decided to block access to alerts announced on the site.