Israel’s home front unprepared for enemy attack

170,000 rockets are pointed this way, yet the hierarchy responsible for protecting civilians is in a shambles, a Knesset panel hears

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Firefighters participating in an IDF Home Front Command drill on February 24 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Firefighters participating in an IDF Home Front Command drill on February 24 (photo credit: Flash 90)

In a marathon Knesset session Thursday, three ministries, all involved in the defense of the home front during a time of war, presented sharply divergent opinions of how best to care for Israeli civilians during the next armed conflict, leading the MK heading the session to complain of chaos and a top official on the National Security to conclude that Israel’s home front is “unprepared, period.”

“The current situation is infused with chaos and disagreements between the government ministries over who has responsibility for the home front in the event of an emergency,” said MK Eli Yishai, the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Subcommittee on Home Front Preparedness.

“The prime minister has up until now refrained from making a decision regarding the allocation of responsibility,” Yishai continued. “We are not prepared in a way that enables us to deal with a missile attack on the home front, and the time has come to get things in order.”

Israel’s enemies, from the 1982 Lebanon War onward, have focused the thrust of their offensive power against civilians. Today those countries and organizations possess 170,000 rockets and missiles, largely stored in urban areas and capable of hitting Israeli civilian centers, the commander of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, revealed in January.

The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, told Haaretz in 2013 that Hezbollah has “ten times” the capacity to strike the center of the country that it had during the Second Lebanon War, when it rained 4,200 rockets on Israel during the 34-day campaign. He estimated that Israel would face “over 1,000 missiles a day” during the next war and that the enemy would maintain its ability to fire throughout the conflict.

The Times of Israel reported earlier this month that Hamas, which fired on the center of the country in November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, has since substantially bolstered its capacity to fire from Gaza on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the rest of central Israel, having invested heavily in producing its own M-75 rockets with a range of 75 kilometers and more, and now has a fast-growing arsenal of dozens of the rockets.

And yet the home front is in disarray, a no man’s land of shared, overlapping, and contradictory responsibilities.

Prime Minister Benjanin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjanin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Control over the home front, both in war and peace, was once the exclusive province of the IDF, which answered to the defense minister and the cabinet. Today, with the rising threat against Israel’s civilian population, the pyramid of command more resembles a modern city skyline – jumbled and uneven, with ultimate authority ambiguously and sometimes contradictorily split between the IDF, the Defense Ministry, the police, the Public Security Ministry, the Home Front Defense Ministry and local municipalities.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, in the latest of a series of reports about the perilously incoherent chain of command governing the home front, detailed some of the major issues in need of a legislative solution. In his July 2013 report, he noted, for example, that both the army and the police are lawfully allowed to assert control over Magen David Adom ambulances and fire-fighting crews. The authority is granted by two separate laws and it is not clear which is subservient to the other. In a time of national emergency, he wrote, rescue crews could well receive contradictory orders.

The same is true of the IDF Home Front Command itself, which answers both to the chief of the staff (on military affairs) and to the defense minister, as stated in the Civilian Defense Law of 1951. If the two contradict one another, the chief of the staff could conceivably find himself in command not only of a war on the front lines but also, by law, of the entire civilian sector.

Finally, despite the creation of the Home Front Defense Ministry in January 2011, there is still no single organization that heads all matters of civilian safety in a time of emergency.

“In ordinary times and in times of emergency the Defense Ministry should be in charge of the home front, period,” said Defense Ministry Director General Dan Harel, an IDF general in reserves.

Harel said that in limited emergencies, such as small -scale natural disasters, the Public Security Ministry should be put in charge of the home front, but that in the event of a national emergency it is imperative that the IDF Home Front Command remain within the framework of the IDF. “There is no place for the Home Front Defense Ministry,” he said. “The chief of the General Staff cannot be isolated from what’s happening on the home front. The moment he is isolated it will create a rupture. It will be bad and bitter for the home front of the State of Israel. It is a situation that will fundamentally endanger the home front.”

Maj. Gen. (res) Dan Harel (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Maj. Gen. (res) Dan Harel (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Referencing the snowstorm this past December, Harel said that “95 percent” of the tools used to aid civilians belonged to the Defense Ministry and the IDF. Furthermore, he said, the squadron of firefighting planes, which belong to the IAF but are operated by the fire services, today do not receive instructions from the air force’s air traffic control, resulting already in one accident. “It is an abnormal situation,” he said.

The director general of the Home Front Defense Ministry, Dan Ronen, a former police major general, advocated for full regulatory control over the home front and told the Knesset committee that the prime minister had established the new ministry “so that there will be one address in a time of emergency.”

The head of the emergency services directorate at the Public Security Ministry, Haim Cohen, told the committee that he sees no reason to differentiate between ordinary times and times of emergency and that, therefore, all responsibility should remain in the hands of the ministry, which runs the police force and national fire department.

He did not note Israel Police’s 2010 debacle in dealing with the Carmel forest fire, which left 44 Israelis dead and was poorly handled from a command and control perspective.

Finally, Brig. Gen. (res) Zeev Zuk-Ram, the deputy director of the National Security Council, suggested that the IDF continue to train the Home Front Command soldiers but that it turn them over to the civilian authorities in the event of an emergency. “I don’t want the minister of defense dealing with every missile that falls on Tel Aviv. The minister of defense should be focused on the front. What happens in Tel Aviv is the responsibility of the Public Security Ministry. It is not within the IDF’s focus.”

As matters currently stand, he said, despite the obvious nature of the threats, “the State of Israel is unprepared, period.”

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