The IDF Didn't Want to Deal With Civilians Anyway

Someone has to help civilians in wartime, the generals say, but why us? They'll never be protected fully anyway.

A new instructor, fresh from America, recently reported to the Israel Air Force Flight School combat navigator's course: Dan Halutz. Lieutenant General Halutz, not yet in the reserves and as usual taking pleasure in the joy of flying, is helping to train tyro navigators - he in the forward seat of the Tzukit training aircraft, they in the rear.

When he was air force commander, Halutz suggested separating the Home Front Command (HFC) from the Israel Defense Forces. He wanted to focus the army's activity on the front and reduce its involvement in civilian matters and anything that could distract it from the main goal. His approach is that someone must take care of the home front, but it does not have to be the army. Not everything is "security" and not everything related to security is army. There is no lack of examples: The Shin Bet security service was originally part of the IDF, while the Border Police emerged from the Frontier Corps. Kindly let the government remove the HFC from its temporary camp in the IDF and transfer it to some ministry or another.

As with other issues, when he finally had the opportunity, as chief of staff, to realize his vision, Halutz was too slow. The HFC remained in the IDF, and Halutz and OC Home Front Command Yitzhak Gershon retained responsibility for civilians.

In October 2005, after recovering from the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Gershon submitted to Halutz and the defense minister at the time, Shaul Mofaz, a plan in the spirit of Halutz - a spirit different from that of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who accepts that the military must provide aid to civilians.

This week Gershon spoke bitterly about the fact that the state comptroller, in this week's report on the performance of the HFC in the Second Lebanon War, sees this plan as moving away from the hard work on the ground to the highest stratum of coordination: You can't see the tactics for the strategy. HFC officials could not understand how the comptroller could praise certain parts of the apparatus, such as police officers, firefighters and hospitals, without realizing that it was the HFC that trained them and formed them into a whole. Gershon's greatest enemy is the total congruence in the public's mind between the home front and the HFC, which was not his intention at all. Food for the people in the bomb shelters? Cash for the ATMs? What are all these to him? He deals with rescues, with protection from chemical and biological weapons and in calming down a frightened population. He's only the lifeguard on the beach: Cleaning and enforcing regulation, and all the rest is someone else's job.

According to the Halutz-Gershon school of thought, the front-line organizations - the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet - "are a buffer between the threat and the population." The home front organizations - the HFC, the police and governmental and civilian bodies - "confront, together with the population, the results of the threat." The strategic goal of the HFC and the rescue services is defined in a manner that places more importance on the performance of the state than the individual: "To ensure the security conditions for the proper operation of state institutions, to enforce law and order and to provide security and a sense of security to the inhabitants, in order to contribute to an improvement in endurance and national fortitude."

The first part was in fact realized in last year's war: Institutions functioned, law and order were enforced. The second half, which led to the inquiries, was far less successful. There was no security, no sense of security, no endurance, no fortitude. Since there were no major disasters, such as high-rise apartment buildings collapsing on their tenants, or releases of hazardous materials, there were also no tales of great heroism on the home front. An anti-aircraft officer recently claimed, in the military journal Maarachot, that in terms of casualties, last year was an improvement over the 1991 Gulf War. Out of 40 Iraqi missiles, 20 landed in Israel, killing one civilian. In the Second Lebanon War, about 4,000 Hezbollah rockets killed 40 civilians, representing a kill rate five times lower than in 1991. It's an edifying statistic, but if civilians still felt badly even though they were better off, then that is bad.

Home front operation

In the eyes of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who relied on the work of a large staff that was headed by Major- General (res.) Yaakov Or, the principal mistake of the cabinet and the General Staff on July 12, 2006 and the days that followed was failing to understand the significance of the difference between the activity on each side of the border. The IDF was in control of its activity in Lebanon, which was an approved operation. The Hezbollah activity affecting the Israeli home front, however - not under Israeli control and correctly assessed as liable to continue indefinitely and to damage a poor infrastructure - was a war from the start. An operation on the front, a war on the home front.

The astonishing revelation of the comptroller's report is the renewed disagreement over the relationship between the government and the army in general, and between the defense minister and the chief of staff and the generals in particular. This is an old disagreement, which was particularly in evidence after the Yom Kippur War, when defense minister Moshe Dayan claimed before the Agranat Commission that he was not an uber chief of staff and that his statements were only "ministerial suggestions." The outrage this provoked led former chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister, to push through the Basic Law on the Army, which spells out the relations among the cabinet, the defense minister, the IDF and the chief of staff.

Only the IDF chief of staff is authorized to transmit directives from the political leadership to the army, but there are exceptions. Certain military units, including Military Intelligence, the coordinator of activities in the territories and the Planning Directorate, are linked directly to the defense minister and the prime minister. Civil Defense is legally subordinate to the defense minister, rather than the chief of staff. The head of the HFC, which is subordinate to the chief of staff, is now also the head of Civil Defense. The defense minister can order a general to implement policy (such as a blackout or sirens) but has no direct control over the army's personnel and budget resources.

On July 19 of last year, during a situation review attended by the chief of staff, defense minister Amir Peretz told Gershon to call up HFC reservists. There was no follow-up: The statement was not formulated as a directive in the minutes of the meeting and was not translated into a military order. Halutz had his own reasons for opposing a "massive" call-up of reservists. The Operations and Adjutancy corps must play a role in drafting 12,000 reserve soldiers, the equivalent of one division. What was surprising was the expectation that Gershon would carry out the wishes of the defense minister despite the opposition of the chief of staff, which Peretz did not attempt to override via a cabinet resolution or proper channels.

Pyramid of blame

One very well-founded theory is that the comptroller is distributing responsibility for the home front failures last year as follows: At the base of the "pyramid of responsibility" are all the governments and prime ministers since 1991, which sanctioned a rickety and neglected infrastructure despite frequent warnings - 40 percent; the cabinet during the war, particularly Olmert, Peretz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter - 35 percent; executive elements - mainly the IDF and Halutz and Gershon personally - 25 percent. In contrast to the overall impression, only 10 percent of the blame was attributed to Gershon himself in the end.

One year on, is the home front better prepared? Would that it were so. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said he plans to act as a "minister for emergency affairs" to coordinate all the state agencies. Gershon suggests combining the HFC with the emergency services, transferring it from the IDF to the Defense Ministry and to leave a general at its head.

The most worrisome HFC scenario for a war in the coming months involves a combined missile attack by Syria and Hezbollah, with a division of labor between them: Syria would attack military targets throughout the country, while Hezbollah would aim rockets at civilian targets. In that event, Israel would have to decide whether to play by the enemy's rules, adapting its responses to the sources of fire, or to break the rules and attack non-military targets in Syria as well. An IDF ground offensive would not be of much use, since Syria has middle- and long-range missiles. Such a war would continue until many targets were hit or the superpowers dictated a cease-fire - probably about a month. Experts predict that about 100 Israeli civilians would die and about 300 would sustain serious or moderate injuries. There is not now, and there will never be, adequate protection for civilians.

The only way to prevent these casualties and many others on the front is to return to diplomatic bargaining before a war and as a substitute for it. Last month the CIA published a new map in which the Golan Heights are in sovereign Syrian territory. Nothing new here, that is the U.S. position, and yet it is a signal. The Golan, as the U.S. administration likes to stress, is occupied Syrian territory, with 20,000 settlers. The U.S. does not recognize the Israeli citizenship that it claims was imposed on the 20,000 Arab inhabitants there - "18,000 Druze and 2,000 Alawites." The price of peace is clear, with or without the price of war.