Hundreds of Rockets and Mass Evacuations: IDF Lays Out What War With Hezbollah Will Look Like

While the intelligence community still thinks the probability of war initiated by Hezbollah is low, the main concern is that local events in Syria or Lebanon will trigger an escalation

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The scene of a Hezbollah rocket attack in the northern Israel city of Haifa Sunday Aug. 13, 2006
The scene of a Hezbollah rocket attack in the northern Israel city of Haifa Sunday Aug. 13, 2006Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Some weeks ago the Israeli army showed the security cabinet a list of possible scenarios for war on the northern border, and its implications for the home front.

The officers shared damage estimates in the event of a brief clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon, what would happen if it lasted about 10 days, a longer but medium-length campaign, about three weeks; or a longer conflict that lasts more than a month.

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The reason for the briefing was not that the top brass thinks war in the north has become more likely, but rather that the cabinet is broadening its knowledge of security-related issues. The Israeli intelligence community still thinks the probability of war initiated by Hezbollah or Iran is low. The main worry is the possibility that local events in Syria or Lebanon will trigger an escalation, not that anybody wants it.

According to various reports in recent years, Hezbollah has some 120,000 to 130,000 missiles and rockets, most short to medium in range. About 90 percent of the rockets can reach up to 45 kilometers, which means they could reach Haifa. Most of those can carry warheads of up to 10 kilograms. The shelters that the law requires be built in all new buildings (since the mid-1990s) are supposed to provide protection against these types of attacks.

Israeli military forces in the Golan Heights, May 2018.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

The scenarios shared with the cabinet included estimates of how many rockets would likely be fired each day, what percent of them would be intercepted, how many would strike on open land versus built-up land, and casualty estimates.

If and when total war erupts up north, the Israeli army plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people who live within missile range, to other parts of Israel. As Haaretz reported a year and a half ago, the plan calls for a complete evacuation of towns nearest the border, with the exception of emergency personnel, which would involved evacuating 78,000 people from 50 towns up to four kilometers from the border. However, assistance would be given to people living further away who may also prefer to leave the area.

The plan created “sisterhoods" between local authorities close to the border and the distant towns slated to take in people who are evacuated. The authorities have lists of people with special needs, lists of absorption points, and beds.

According to surveys, the Home Front Command assesses that if necessary, more than half the residents would elect to leave on their own and stay with friends or relatives somewhere else in Israel. Such people wouldn't require any accommodations at field schools, hotels and the like. (The Home Front is in charge of the evacuation, while the absorption of the evacuees is the job of the Interior Ministry.)

In the event of war, Israel will face a dilemma about whether to continue operating the rig that extracts natural gas from the Mediterranean seabed.

A Home Front Command exercise in March 2018.Credit: IDF Spokesman

Most likely, the rig will be shut down for fear of sustaining irremediable damage, though it should be defended by naval and aerial interception systems. But damage to the rig while it’s operating could take years to repair. Fixing any damage caused while the rig is shut down is more likely to take a matter of weeks. Therefore, in the event of war, the rig will probably be shut down and the electric company and Energy Ministry will just have to “manage demand” for power – meaning, for the first time in Israeli history, they may have to periodically shut down the power around the country.

The Home Front Command and National Emergency Authority (also known by the acronym, “Rachel”) have classified 50 infrastructure systems around the country as critical, which would require a broad defense. The systems include energy and transport. About 20 percent of them have been specially protected, including by adding another layer of cement over sensitive sites to prevent the whole economy from suffering from missile strikes. When deploying interception systems, the army will stress protection of these sites, as well as the air force and other army bases.

One issue that keeps the top brass up at night is the level of the Israeli public’s expectations, based on experience of attacks on the Home Front in the past and versus what they should expect in the event of a major conflict up north. During the last two Gaza campaigns, Pillar of Fire (2012) and Protective Edge (2014), the Iron Dome system managed to shoot down about 90 percent of the rockets fired at built-up areas. People living in central Israel became entirely too sanguine and many have come to ignore instructions during war. But a clash up north will force Israel to cope with hundreds of rockets a day, and will do much more damage to the home front, both in the north and in the center of the country.

The extent of rocket shootings and the still-limited number of anti-ballistic missiles Israel has, will not enable similar interception statistics in the event of another war in the north. Limiting the harm done to civilians depends on moving them away from the border, and also on civilians heeding the Home Front’s instructions (the shelters are resistant to most types of damage, other than a direct hit by rockets with heavy war-heads). The improvement in the alert system – which can more accurately identify rocket fire, and predict exactly where the rockets would hit, should make it easier to alert the public in time.

Recently the Home Front Command has developed software to meet the local governments’ demands to monitor the sites where rockets fall, based on a number of parameters that rescue units should find helpful. The moment the site of a strike is identified, details about the number of people residing in the building – and the people with special needs among them - can be provided.

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