Smoke, explosions, rubble, screams, blood. Down in the south of Israel, a residential building in Safed was hit by a missile with a half-ton warhead. There was no immediate body count, but videos surfaced on social media of people trapped in collapsed building and under cars.
Not really, of course.
This was a search and rescue exercise by the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command, on their base in Zikim near the Gaza border.
The residential building hit by a rocket in “Safed” was actually hundreds of miles away from the real northern Israeli city. The explosions and smoke were clever pyrotechnics. The blood was fake, as were the screams. The rubble has been there for years, playing the part of numerous Israeli cities for search and rescue exercises.
Sunday’s exercise was designed to be immersive, as close to the real thing as possible, with fake rocket alert sirens blaring in the background, pretend journalists interviewing rescue workers and the aforementioned pyrotechnics and other theatrics meant to reproduce the clamor of such attacks.
“This advanced training exercise also included the integration of IDF officers, police officers, firefighters and Magen David Adom,” Brig. Gen. Dedi Simchi, chief of staff for the Home Front Command, told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the exercise.
Less than a week after a real rocket fired from Gaza struck an Israeli kindergarten in Sderot, IDF soldiers took part in a large, theatrical drill on Sunday designed to imitate just such an incident.
The timing was a coincidence. The exercise had been planned long before last Friday night’s attack. But the recent strike demonstrated the necessity of drills like it.
In Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or Iran, the immediate threats to Israel come in the form of rockets, missiles and mortars.
While Israel possesses one of the world’s best missile defense batteries, the IDF has repeatedly stressed that those systems are not a panacea, that in the next war the country needs to be prepared for civilian casualties and strikes on Israeli cities.
“In the next war, we determined that a lot of missiles of varying sizes and types will fly at the Israeli home front. Some of them will hit residential areas,” Simchi said.
Israel may be a society that is used to war, but the Israeli civilian population has not been seriously harmed during a war in decades.
In the 2014 Gaza war, six Israeli civilians died. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War — arguably the closest the Jewish state came to destruction — though approximately 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, there were zero Israeli civilian deaths. The only person who died away from the front lines in the October war was an air force pilot who was killed when a Syrian surface-to-surface missile struck the Ramat David base in northern Israel.
Israel’s last war with a large number of civilian casualties was in fact its first, with some 2,400 non-combatants dying in the War of Independence.
Those figures are undoubtedly a testament to the IDF’s ability to protect the civilian population, but they may also give Israeli citizens a false sense of security, one that the IDF top brass has worked and is working to fix.
“I don’t think that the population isn’t prepared. But I do think that we need to adjust citizens’ expectations. In the past three rounds with Hamas in Gaza, the rockets weren’t so heavy,” he said.
In a speech last month, the head of army intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevy stressed the importance of those “expectations.”
“In the Yom Kippur War, we had one person” — the IAF pilot — “killed on the home front from a Syrian missile. The situation in the next conflict will be completely different,” Halevy said.
As such, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot instructed the Home Front Command to put additional effort into preparing itself and the country for attacks, Simchi said.
“We understand that the home front is going to be the secondary front in every war. If there’s going to be a war up north or down south, the Israeli home front is going to be hit with rockets,” Simchi said.
In addition to large-scale exercises, like the one conducted on Sunday, this has meant speaking with the country’s rescue services and government agencies to ensure that there is an understanding of who is responsible for what during an emergency — something that Israel has not always excelled at.
“Today there are agreements — written and signed — between the Home Front Command and National Emergency Authority, written and signed agreements between the Home Front Command and the Israel Police. We are ready,” Simchi said.
“There’s no doubt that since the Second Lebanon War, everything dealing with the home front and emergency preparedness has improved greatly.
For instance, Simchi offered, in the 10 years since that conflict, the precision of Israel’s rocket alert system has improved tenfold. Where the country was once divided into 25 alert zones, there are now 250, Simchi said, and there are plans to make the system even more accurate.
In addition to the military’s improvement, individual Israeli cities have also become more prepared for rocket attacks, the brigadier general said.
“Approximately 93 percent of the local authorities are in ‘Good’ condition, which we define as being able to handle threats and know how to provide a response [to disaster],” he said.
“There’s a lot to do, but we’ve done a lot. We have a very good trend of improvement.”