Much of the attention about a potential conflict between Israel and Iran has focused on the decision-making process that could lead the Jewish state to act to forestall the creation of a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran’s Islamist leadership. But while the debate continues about what Israel’s government will decide to do and when they will do it, inside the country, preparations are under way for the aftermath of that decision.
On a cold morning in late January, ambulances raced around Haifa, Israel’s largest port city. There had been an attack with a “dirty bomb,” armed with radioactive cesium 137. Doctors and paramedics cleaned up the survivors, while the authorities informed the public the “unthinkable” had happened in the heart of the Jewish State. It was just a drill, but the exercise code-named “Dark Cloud,” was part of the Israel Defense Force Home Front Command’s plan to prepare the country in case of war with Iran.
If Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran has three major targets: the atomic reactor at Dimona, Haifa’s port and refineries, and the area of Zakariya, where Israel stored its missile arsenal. Eyal Eisenberg, head of the Home Front Command, recently declared, “Haifa will be flooded with 12.000 missiles.” Israel’s army estimates that Hamas and Hezbollah have 1,600 rockets capable of hitting targets with high precision. In the words of former Minister Matan Vilnai, in the event of such a war, Israel’s Defense Ministry building “will not remain standing.”
But Israel is no stranger to missile fire. Since 1948, the year of the founding of the state, more than 60,000 rockets have fallen on Israel. In 2006 during the second Lebanon war when Hezbollah rained missiles down on the north of the country, one million Israelis were forced to live in shelters for more than a month. There are estimated to be 200,000 missiles pointed at the country today. The situation is such that, according to a survey conducted by Tel Aviv University, 30 percent of those Israelis with a foreign passport are willing to leave the country. A few days ago, Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, published a list of “cities of refuge” where it is better to live “in case of emergency.”
Tel Aviv, where 60 percent of Israel’s population reside, is now facing Iran’s “judgment day.” Many security drills are termed “NBC:” nuclear, biological and chemical threats.
Syria is the “most advanced Arab country in the production of chemical weapons,” according to a report by the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. Though Syria’s government is preoccupied with the rebellion against the Assad regime, it is still an ally of Iran and might decide that joining in an attack on Israel would be a good way to divert public anger against the massacres of dissidents. Syria has produced hundreds of tons of chemical weapons and bombs filled with sarin and another lethal gas, VX. The idea is that botulinum, anthrax and other lethal pathogens can be used in conjunction with explosives. Just 100 grams of mustard gas would be enough to kill 500 Israelis.
With this sort of threat in view, Israel is preparing its bomb shelters. This week, the Foreign Ministry gave the embassies a list of bunkers available for the diplomats. Only Tel Aviv has as many as 240 bunkers. The Jerusalem railway station is able to accommodate 5,000 people. Even theaters, like Habima in Tel Aviv, will host thousands of people. In Safed, the first hospital-bunker for children is being prepared. Evacuation plans are ready for Ramat Gan, the populous suburb of Tel Aviv hit by Saddam Hussein’s rockets in 1991.
While many Israelis may take shelter in the Negev, up to half a million could take refuge in the Jewish settlements of Samaria. The commander of the Home Front, General Yair Golan, declared that “cities can be transformed into a battlefield” and that masses of people will be forced to flee to a “national refuge” in Samaria in the West Bank. The hospitals have emergency plans. The most important industries, such as the banks and the Bezeq phone company, are preparing alternative technologies in case of national collapse.
Meanwhile, in southern Israel, where Gaza-based terrorists have rained down thousands of missiles in recent years, bulldozers are hard at work building new shelters for the expected next round of shelling. In Sderot, the town that has been hardest hit by Hamas missile fire, virtually every street is already dotted with concrete huts. The government has promised to put a missile-proof security room in every home. Five thousand shelters are planned for a place with just 20,000 inhabitants.
In addition to the shelters, a new alarm system, located in the Negev desert, can calculate the exact trajectory of a missile. The plan is to use this information to alert all the mobile phones in the area via SMS, audio alert and display lighting.
Given the level of preparation for these attacks, these days the State of Israel looks like a bunkered Western outpost threatened with destruction by Iran. The countdown for war may have already begun. But as Israelis start thinking about heading to shelters, the question in their minds is: once the assault on their nation begins, will the West come to their aid?