|Protection and Dissuasion|
|By Roland S. S.üssmann|
Israel’s internal politics are going through a highly volatile phase, with a large number of uncertainties and, as often happens, the future seems to be hopeless. At the same time, one of the big worries at the moment is knowing whether or not Iran has the atomic bomb and to what extent it would be prepared to use it against Israel. Contrary to what one might of have thought, this danger does not constitute the sole or even main concern of the Israeli army, which on the ground is faced by several other threats. One of the most important ones is the recent, massive rearming of Hizbullah, which is dug in on the country’s northern border. To understand the scale of these dangers, and especially how Israel is preparing its population, we met with Major General Yair Golan, commander of the Home Front, which is in fact a highly developed form of civilian protection.
Just over two years ago, during the Second Lebanon War, almost 30% of Israel’s population was confined to their shelters for about a month, living practically day and night under ground. What lessons have you drawn from this experience, which was so traumatizing?
We are now in an entirely new situation, because we are faced with several types of unprecedented threats. However, before going into details, I would like to give a short history of the protection of the population during the various wars that have marked the history of our country, including of course the lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war.
During the various conflicts the rear, namely the civilian population, was not really threatened. During each of the wars including the First Lebanon War, fighting was restricted to areas far from civil life, so much so that during this time, except for a few isolated incidents, the population was not exposed to violence. This changed for the first time during the First Gulf War in 1991. I remember when Iraqi Scuds were fired against Israel and hit a civilian target, which usually meant an apartment was destroyed, the army arrived, did what it had to do and left. These events were considered to be purely military, even if the risk of a chemical attack was real enough. These attacks did not make us think and we did nothing to set up well-organized, efficient civil protection. In July 2006 we went into the Second Lebanon War with the same mindset, that the army should not intervene unless it was really necessary. After the war the State Comptroller’s report came out, and rightly he was extremely critical of the way the civilian population had been treated during the war. His conclusions required a radical change of attitudes. From now one the army would not just intervene when it had to, and one of its main tasks would be to prepare the population for every eventuality, so that it knew exactly how to react in the event of an attack. We had to get down to this new task, to make aware, explain and train the local authorities, the voluntary organizations, colleges, businesses and others. Our main job is to prepare the population to be fully informed of what to do in an emergency. This is not simple, since civil society is not the military, but a fairly chaotic mass. One of our key initiatives has been to organize society so that it should not be caught off guard and that each person knows exactly what to do. On account of the huge scale of this task, we obviously have not carried it out alone and we have not the slightest intention of giving orders to the population. Since the start of 2008 we have organized 1,300 counseling courses, and by the end of the year we will have held 2,000 of them. We have gone to companies, factories, schools, communities, government offices and more, and put just a single question to the people in charge, “Is the risk of finding yourselves in an emergency situation one of your concerns?” All said yes. We explained that we are organizing a free course at one of our bases or, if they prefer, in companies or anywhere else that might suit them. In this way we provide basic training to several thousand people, who will then know how to act in case of an emergency. These are the ones who represent us, who go into their areas or municipalities and start preparing the people, the equipment and the premises so as to be ready to handle every catastrophic scenario. For this reason we will not find ourselves in the situation like that of Safed City Hall during the Second Lebanon War, when, panicked, it effectively dissolved itself. Further, the local and regional authorities and city halls are in a way our "soldiers", and in 2007 we decided to train them. This takes place in two parts, a one-day course, and then two weeks later, to give them time to absorb what they have learnt, a day of exercises in the field.
You spoke about training volunteers. How does it take place?
In Israel the number of volunteer organizations is much higher than in many other countries. However, none of these organizations has a defined role in the event that the country or the region finds itself in an emergency situation. We believe that here we have a force with completely unused, potential energy that, if necessary, could show itself to be useful and efficient. I cannot quote you the names of all those with whom we work, and will limit myself to giving the example of Zaka, which has 1.300 volunteers and which has proved itself during suicide bomber attacks and in other dramatic circumstances. We told them that what they are doing to save lives and dealing with the dead is marvelous, but that we would like them to set up a section to act in emergencies. To date we have already given them two courses to train what I would “emergency unit commanders”, capable of training and leading their men in helping the population in case of need. Each of these commanders will set up a group of 50 people, each with a clearly defined task. We have prepared special jackets for all volunteers so that they can be recognized and that people can contact then to help or guidance. They could, for example, distribute medicines, help someone whose home has been destroyed by a missile get to a temporary dwelling etc. We are working with all the major volunteer organizations that are represented throughout the country. We have been in contact with Ezer Mizion, a medical and social assistance organization for the aged, destitute and handicapped, which provides help in particular to child cancer patients and those with special needs. It is also specialized in providing bone marrow, has 25 branches throughout the country and uses some 10,000 volunteers. As part of its activities Ezer Mizion has also agreed to organize a unit to come to the aid of the population in an emergency. Another marvelous organization is the Civil Guard. This is a volunteer body that works hand in glove with the police, carrying out patrols in their local area. It has about 12,000 volunteers, with small units sprinkled almost everywhere, each of which already has a person in charge who manages its present activities. I want to talk to you about high schools. There we have a fabulous force of young people on average 17 years old, who are strong, quick and very happy to make themselves useful in a sensible way. We have also been to see the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, which has 3,000 students, aged 17 to 23. They agreed to cooperate with us, and in the event of an emergency they will know what to do to help the orthodox population. We are in contact with other yeshivot, because even if their students do not go to the army, there is nothing to stop them taking part in some form of civil defense. To round off this part, I will tell you that one of the main lessons of the Second Lebanon War has been to educate and involve the population in the activities of the Home Front.
In the courses you have talked about, what do you teach?
First of all we teach how to react to an attack with conventional rockets. The rockets that the Syrians and Hizbullah have today are no longer limited to the simple Katyushas we have known. Far from it, they have missiles fitted with 450 kg explosive heads. So this is clearly not a simple matter, because if a building takes a hit from this type of explosive, it certainly is not protected by the ordinary shelter in an apartment. Today, we are living in another world. We have to internalize that those who have been killed no longer pose major problems, while those who have been injured are evacuated to hospital. However, the big question that remains to be solved is those who are unharmed and remain standing. This is our biggest problem. Everyone in fact knows, without having been specially trained, that in the event of alert you have to go down into the shelters. However, if the building above the shelters has been destroyed, we will find ourselves with a large number of people who have no roof over their heads. What are we going to do? How do we handle them? Where should we take them? What do we give them? What are the priorities in providing assistance? Is it physical (beds, food etc) or psychological? In the course we give, we teach the answers to all these questions. I will give you another series of topics we deal with as part of our training. How does a municipality open a refuge or reception center for people who find themselves without a home? Where should it be opened and how should it be organized and managed. You need to understand that from one moment to another, a city hall may find itself with 2,000 people who have lost their homes. All men and women in good health the day after the attack could go back to work, but where are they going to sleep? What will they eat and where will they go to eat, wash etc? It is the answers to this type of question and many others of the same sort that we address at both the theoretical and the practical levels. Municipalities like those in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa do not have a lot of problems to get organized. Firstly, they have some experience from the wave of suicide bombings they went through, but also because they have the budgets available to act. However, what about a town like Safed, which has no budget and which does not know how to act? We have to train everyone, however, some cities require more help than others. So the threat of so-called conventional weapons is becoming increasingly dangerous, and the risks for the population are much greater.
How do you protect the population against a chemical or biological attack?
Many people think it is unreasonable to expect that type of attack. I am not convinced and believe it is better we be prepared, even if such an attack never materializes. What I am dealing with is not being ready for tomorrow morning, but for in five or even twenty years time. I know that the day such an attack does happen will be much too late to start thinking about how we are going to protect, care for and reorganize the population. In fact, it is simple enough to train people and organize every type of help when conventional armaments rain down on a town or a region. Civil defense during a chemical or biological attack is an altogether different matter, and it requires years to organize effective assistance that can be mobilized in such circumstances. We must not have any illusions, the threat is real and the possibility of a chemical or biological attack is much greater than of an Iranian atomic attack, which of course cannot be excluded. During World War I, the Germans used gas. They did not use it again on the battlefield in World War II, because they saw that once their enemy was protected, especially with masks, these toxic combat gases entirely lost their effectiveness. Unfortunately, we know only too well and we are not allowed to forget the fact that they used it for other purposes… I have taken the example of the use of gas to illustrate my thesis of the need to know how to protect oneself. If citizens know how to act during such an attack, what sort of suits or masks to put on, when they can leave the house and when they must stay indoors, how to recognize contaminated water or food etc, this type of attack will lose its effectiveness and will also in due course be abandoned. As far as biological attacks go, these are not intended to kill immediately, but to cause illnesses, suffering and eventually death. It is a way of weakening a population and even a country. On this subject, our message is quite clear. We must prepare for every eventuality, because if not, when the day comes we will be totally disoriented and lost in the face of the scale of the problems. Let us not forget that a conventional or unconventional attack is a source of panic and disorganization, but if we have a population that has been trained, all the assistance required can be given calmly and efficiently.
As part of your activities, do you teach doctors who are specialists in the treatment of the effects of chemical and biological attacks?
We don’t just teach them, we provide them, and specialized care personnel as well, with extremely intensive training. Israeli hospitals are the best equipped and prepared in the world to handle these types of attacks. A simple example will give you an idea of the level of preparation in our medical centers. At the entrance to every hospital there is a decontamination area where victims of a chemical or biological attack must go through before being admitted for treatment. Our example is in fact followed in many hospitals around the world.
Do you believe that Arab terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the PLO (the Palestinian Authority), today have chemical or biological weapons that they can use against the Israeli population?
There is no doubt that these organizations want to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. However, handling them requires a level of knowledge and technical abilities that they do not have at this time. If you recall, there was a terrorist organization in Japan that carried out a chemical attack in the subway in the 1990s, but that was a one-off operation that has not be repeated. Therefore, I do not believe that in the near future we will be faced by an unconventional terrorist threat against Israel. However, I do want to stress yet again the seriousness of the conventional threat, for which new types of missiles and rockets have been installed along our borders in enormous quantities, fitted with explosive heads that are much larger than those we faced in the Second Lebanon War. Having said which, there is also a threat of an unconventional attack from Syria or Iran, both of which have very large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. What’s more, Hizbullah has missiles with a range of 250km, which means that they can fire from deep inside Lebanese territory and hit Haifa and Tel-Aviv. However, what is much more disturbing is the range of the missiles Syria has, which is from 70 to 700km. In other words, such a missile fitted with a large explosive payload or an unconventional head could be launched from near the Iraqi or Turkish border and hit central Israel.
As part of the training you provide, do you also teach how to react if one day Israel will be the victim of a terrorist attack, for example an unconventional suicide attack?
What we teach about war also applies to terrorism. However, it is easier to organize civil defense against terrorism than for war. The amount of damage and the number of people affected is much less. That is why the immediate results of acts of terrorism are in the hands of the police, even though we of course cooperate on a daily basis with them in this field.
During the various wars and including the Second Lebanon War, tourists who were then in Israel at the start of hostilities offered there help as volunteers in various tasks. In most cases they were politely rejected. Why? Does Israel categorically refuse to accept practical (i.e. non-monetary) help from Jews living abroad?
Absolutely not. For my part I make no distinction between an Israeli and a foreign volunteer, where his or her help can be useful and effective. But I must say that you are touching on a very important point. Many people are full of good will and want to help us, and it is for us to know how to make best use of this advantage. I would go so far as to say that we obtain a capital of positive motivation that we need to know how to manage. Within the Home Front Command we have set up a department whose task is, in an emergency, to know how to manage such offers and guide volunteers to places where they will be the most useful and effective, based upon their know-how, abilities, knowledge and training. For example, a hospital in Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv has no need for outside help, whereas in Nahariya, Safed or Beer-Sheva, this additional support would be really welcome. This could prove particularly important in the event of a large-scale war. I am thinking especially of foreign doctors who could replace Israeli doctors who have left for the front. But it is equally applicable in other fields.
After everything you have explained us and the major operation you have launched to prepare the population, do you believe that in the event of a new attack by the Arabs the people who live in the areas under attack will again have to spend virtually 24 hours a day for many weeks confined to their shelters?
We have to adopt an entirely different approach. Closing people up in shelters for hours on end, days and weeks makes them passive and depressed, which is disastrous. We encourage people, to go out, to get a grip on their lives, to feel responsible for the life of their neighbors, and it is up to us to make them active. In WWII, when London was under bombardment, life continued as normally as possible, which strengthened the spirit of resistance. Therein lies a key point in managing civilian behavior in extraordinary circumstances. In Sderot we never closed the shelters. Quite the contrary. We have always said to people to come out five minutes after the end of an alert and to carry on with normal life.
That is also one of the big lessons of the Second Lebanon War. Everyone was speaking about Kiryat Shemoneh, which was so to speak continually under Hizbullah rocket fire. In the first ten days of the war, on average two to five rockets fell during the day and there was no firing during the night. Is it really necessary to close up people for ten days in a row under ground and during the night? Certainly not. What’s more, people closed up like that cannot help the aged or the handicapped. People must go home, to their kitchens and prepare their own food. It is wrong to be bringing them warm meals. Closing people up in shelters breaks society’s essential links. Our role is not to close people up, but to warn them when rockets are fired, to sound the alarms and to tell them to go into the shelters. However, between two firings they must continue to live as normally as possible. What is needed is to create routine within an emergency. That in a nutshell is the main challenge with which we are faced.
We see it, and all these efforts and preparations are made in the hope that they will never be used. However, in the event of a new Arab attack, Israel’s population, which has always displayed courage and determination, will know how to continue living as normally as possible, whatever the type and strength of the attack. Major General Yair Golan and his men are doing everything to ensure that.