Fearing Next Lebanon War, Israel Makes Plans for Temporary Evacuations

If there’s another round of fighting, Hezbollah will aim to seize a locale for a few hours and fly its flags amid the burning ruins. But the Israelis’ return is all part of the plan.

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A Haifa building damaged in a rocket attack during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
A Haifa building damaged in a rocket attack during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.Credit: Nir Kafri
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

“Even on Independence Day there aren’t this many flags,” says Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav. “You could argue that it’s wasteful, but this was thought through. It may look crazy, but it calms people.”

The 2006 Second Lebanon War was the first Israeli war where the home front was part of the battlefront, and no one was prepared. The country’s leaders, according to a report by then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, devoted most of their attention to the fighting, not the home front, which was vulnerable to heavy attack from the start.

Hezbollah launched more than 4,000 rockets and missiles during that conflict, the army says. Even though only a small number hit residential areas, 44 Israelis were killed. Cities in the north were abandoned by their residents, who in turn felt abandoned by their leaders.

But Haifa stood out for its efficiency because it had emergency procedures in place, designed for an earthquake. The city was divided into eight districts, each with its own war room. Since then, the municipality has acquired a drone that allows for a clearer picture of the urban landscape.

Yahav boasts that he receives images from the drone on his smartphone. He doesn’t want to be in a situation where he’s waiting for help. “Mayors are the ones closest to their citizens, the ones people look to for help,” he says.

The Home Front Command is a strange animal; most of its people are officers and soldiers from field units tasked with preparing civilians for a state of emergency. So it has taught local-government chiefs how to stand in front of the cameras, and it has put together a website for use during emergencies.

Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who has headed both the Home Front Command and the Northern Command, notes that one component of a country’s strength is respect for the people.

“I often find that in forums such as these there is talk of citizens as frightened, hysterical and irresponsible,” he said at a meeting of the National Emergency Management Authority this month. “But when I ask each officeholder to imagine these citizens as their children or parents, they treat them with much more respect.”

More guys with guns

The kibbutz movement’s security director, Dotan Razili, is a member of Kibbutz Eilon in the western Galilee. He says that until the 2014 Gaza war, his kibbutz’s rapid response team consisted of only three people.

“There were no weapons in people’s homes – they didn’t want them. After that, people started realizing that homes must be defended. It wasn’t clear how long it would take for help to arrive. We’ll be alone at first. Anyone who knows how these things work understands that in a surprise you’re on your own,” he says.

“Hezbollah leader [Hassan] Nasrallah and Hamas are preparing a surprise attack. So now the rapid response team has 10 people with weapons at home, and they’re not worried about it. The kibbutz has invested in other means as well such as lighting and radio systems.”

The scenario described by Razili, now a reserve lieutenant colonel and during the Second Lebanon War a battalion commander at officer training school, is a Hezbollah attempt to capture a locale in the north.

“Hezbollah wants to show a street in Metula with burned-out cars and its flags flying. You’ll need the entire army to take it back,” says Razili, who believes the organization would suffice with holding territory for a few hours, “planting their flags, taking prisoners and putting it all on Twitter.”

The plan being crafted by the army involves evacuating civilians living near the border – evacuating, says Home Front Command, not abandoning entire communities. In the south, plans are already in place, whether for the evacuation of a kibbutz due to a specific warning or the evacuation of 21 communities four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

“If you evacuate all the residents, Hezbollah will have less incentive to attack,” Razili says.

Yahav predicts that in an emergency, thousands of people from Haifa and the suburbs would stream to the Carmel Tunnels, whose construction was completed in 2010. “Does anyone know if there’s enough air there for 10,000 people?” he asks. “Who will oversee entry and exit there, as well as all the vehicles moving around? I, as the head of this city, don’t know what will be done with these tunnels.”

Sirens, sirens everywhere

The Home Front Command’s response to the possibility of an evacuation by thousands of frightened residents is a plan to improve the emergency alert system. The recommendation to civilians who aren’t in a specifically targeted area will usually be to stay put.

An officer at the Home Front Command says that during the first days of the Second Lebanon War, sirens went off after rockets had already landed. The sirens worked well “only from the fifth day, after radar tracking the rockets was linked to the system.”

The Home Front Command now wants to change the system for sounding alerts, which would be limited to areas considered specifically under attack, rather than wide areas where tens or hundreds of thousands of people live.

In 2006 there were 25 districts covered by emergency sirens, whereas now there are 256. The whole country will eventually be subdivided into 3,000 such units. Industrial areas will be marked separately from cities so that production can continue when rockets land in residential areas.

“This will contribute to the nation’s resilience, uninterrupted economic activity and reduced anxiety,” says the officer. “The investment will be made good after only one day of fighting.”

On the other hand, people may hear explosions without a siren going off where they live. The officer is aware of this.

“We’re concerned about rumors flying around, with people hearing explosions with no alert sounding,” he says. “This will require educating people, but it will ultimately reduce the number of people seeking shelter.”

Still, in a situation where more than 1.5 million homes in Israel have no protection during an emergency – neither a safe room nor a public shelter within walking distance – “your home is your castle” is a dubious concept. Army officials say the cost of building safe rooms in every house and apartment is prohibitive.

“We won’t cause a financial collapse by investing in concrete,” says Golan, the deputy chief of staff. “The state is investing in high-risk areas such as those near the Gaza Strip and the northern border.”

The Home Front Command’s response to the safe-room gap puts some of the responsibility on the people’s shoulders. After some experimentation, the army recommends that people without a safe room should add metal sheets to one room of their home, at a cost of tens of thousands of shekels.

This would protect against a Scud missile landing dozens of meters away. The army is promoting a government loan to help with this initiative. Yahav believes that the state should launch a plan to build safe rooms for people who can’t afford to.

“Just as we provide bread we should provide security,” Yahav says. “These people don’t have the required 30,000 shekels [$7,730]; they’re welfare cases. So do we just say every man for himself?”

Yahav doesn’t shy away from the possibility of donors filling the gap. “I established a mobile war room with the help of philanthropists. And what about the group Thank Israeli Soldiers? We’re a nation of schnorrers – I’m not ashamed of that.”

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