MESS Report / Public Indifference to Civil Defense Drill Highlights Israeli Apathy

While authorities actively prepare for future threats, the Israeli public appears unfazed.

The sirens that wailed across the country on Wednesday morning, at the peak of the five-day Home Front Command exercise, highlighted a disturbing chasm between the hyperactivity of the authorities and the apathy of the public.

While the authorities spent hours training for dire scenarios and the media provided a background chorus of strident, even scary, commentary, the public remained completely unfazed.

The Home Front Command is planning a relatively comprehensive survey today to assess how many people heard the siren and how many bothered to look for a nearby shelter.

In a poll after last year's drill last year, 52 percent of respondents said they participated. This year the number appears to be smaller.

It is possible that many people are aware of the danger but do not believe that a future threat should disrupt their present activities. Before Wednesday's drill Deputy Defense Minister MK Matan Vilnai estimated that "99 percent of people would not respond to the siren." He told Haaretz he was not overly concerned because the main purpose of the exercise is to improve the coordination between the hundreds of bodies involved in protecting the home front.

But Vilnai seems to be underestimating the importance of the public's role in the drill. The Home Front Command stresses the huge efforts that have been made since the Second Lebanon War, four years ago, and the state's shameful failure to care for the people of northern Israel during that time. The command also says it's important for people to obey instructions. Few of the civilians who followed military directives for protecting themselves were injured by rockets either in the Lebanon war or in the military operation in the Gaza Strip two years later.

If the public is not fully aware of the danger, then the home front may not function properly in wartime, especially in the initial stages when great confusion is likely. This is especially true in the greater Tel Aviv region, which is expected to be the focus of Hezbollah (and Hamas, albeit to a lesser extent ) in any future confrontation.

The state cannot be expected to provide full protection from missiles to every citizen in every place. Much depends on the public following instructions - and on statistics. The question is whether most civilians know what to do in the event of an attack and how quickly the authorities can convey vital information to them during a state of war.

The Turning Point 4 exercise exposed various faults in home front operations that will have to be analyzed and improved in the months to come. Despite the many complaints yesterday, the siren system appeared to be working properly. According the army, 97 percent of the country's sirens - the number of which rose by more than 50 percent within a year - were activated.

But their wail did not always penetrate air-conditioned offices or cars in noisy urban traffic. In a genuine emergency various auxiliary systems will be used, including broadcasting the siren on the radio and sending text messages to people in the target area through software that is being developed.