Reporter's notebook

In a hospital parking lot, Israel prepares for chemical war

Maximum speed, minimum contamination are the watchwords, as Jerusalem drills for a devastating WMD strike

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Hadassah Medical Center staff and Home Front Command soldiers during a drill Wednesday simulating a chemical weapon attack on Israel (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)
Hadassah Medical Center staff and Home Front Command soldiers during a drill Wednesday simulating a chemical weapon attack on Israel (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)

The IDF’s Home Front Command on Wednesday simulated a chemical weapons missile strike in the capital with thousands of wounded and hundreds of dead.

The nationwide three-day drill, code-named Turning Point 7, which on Wednesday also simulated missile strikes on Israel’s parliament building, has unfolded amid rising tension between Israel and Syria — a country that possesses some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons.

“The things we see here are meant to protect Israel from a horde of new threats,” a watching Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, as soldiers began the process of triage in one of the capital’s residential neighborhoods.

“We can defend [the citizens of Israel]. It won’t always be perfect; armor is never hermetic, but protection can be provided for the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu added. “That’s what we’re practicing here and that’s what we’ll continue to do in the coming months and years.”

The “wounded” were brought to the Hadassah Medical Center’s Mount Scopus campus, where the IDF’s Home Front soldiers, male and female, reservists all, congregated at the rear entrance of the hospital.

At 9 a.m., with the heat rising and the drill not yet officially launched, few seemed eager to done their protective attire. “Don’t tell me ‘one more minute,’ a female lieutenant barked into her megaphone at a group of lounging soldiers. “Get ready and get in the shower.”

Slowly, a group of soldiers shed the last of their civilian gear — red felt Adidas sneakers and gold-rimmed shades — donned their many layers of protective gear and hosed themselves down.

As the first ambulances arrived at the scene, Col. Gili Shenhar of the Home Front Command explained the drill. A missile had fallen in the northern neighborhood of Ramot, he said. Soldiers at the scene had already determined that the warhead contained chemical agents and had sent word to the hospital regarding the number of casualties, which stood at a very optimistic 300.

Yaakov Cohen, the hospital’s plumber, had set up several dozen outside shower heads and the wounded — colorful plastic dummies outfitted with army blouses — were stripped, scrubbed and washed.

Medical staff during a Home Front Command drill in Jerusalem (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)
Medical staff during a Home Front Command drill in Jerusalem (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)

“The main things are decontamination and speed,” said Minister of Health Yael German, who watched the drill and received a learned explanation from hospital director Dr. Osnat Levzion-Korach.

In Jerusalem there are three hospitals equipped to deal with chemical weapons casualties, Levzion-Korach added.

A yellow line divided the yard outside the hospital: contaminated medical crews and patients on one side and other hospital staff on the other.

“The decontamination has to be done outside the hospital,” Shenhar explained. Other armies, he said, decontaminate in the field but “after many years of dealing with trauma, we realize it’s faster this way.”

Each patient was flagged by a doctor upon arrival, with red representing the most severely wounded, yellow moderate, green mild and white the walk-in patients.

“In cases of exposure to chemical weapons there is something called aging,” said Dr. Gaby Polliack, a colonel in reserves and the deputy director of Hadassah’s sister hospital in Ein Kerem. “It means that as time passes, the worse it gets; the damage becomes irreversible.”

For that reason, he said, the mildly wounded had to be decontaminated quickly and rushed into the hospital for treatment.

Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in Prada sunglasses and a crisp blue shirt, watched the drill from above and did not stay for long. In the days leading up to the drill he said it was not a question of whether or not Israel’s population centers would be targeted by rocket attack, “but when it would happen.” Asked subsequently about the possibility of Syria attacking Israel with chemical weapons, Erdan said that though there was a higher chance of that happening than in the past, it was still considered a “low-probability scenario.”

The head of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eizenberg, a former commando in the Air Force’s Special Forces unit and a division commander during the Second Lebanon War, struck an offensive tone in advance of the drill. “The weapons in our enemies’ hands are long distance, equipped with large and significant warheads,” he told the army’s Bamachaneh weekly. “There is no doubt that if this sort of campaign develops, the Israeli home front will experience something it has not experienced in the past.

“These will not be easy days, but Israel has a destructive capacity tens of times more great than its enemies, and therefore I recommend to our neighbors that before firing up their engines, they reconsider.”

At the hospital on Wednesday, leading around a group of American officers from the National Guard headquarters in Washington D.C., Eizenberg refused to take questions. But the command’s spokesperson, Col. Shenhar, assured a group of reporters that “when something is real, like Operation Pillar of Defense, the public understands how to act.”

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