‘Pandemonium’ on the home front
Who'll take care of Israel's citizens if war breaks out?

‘Pandemonium’ on the home front

Netanyahu will have to rule who, from among an array of ministries and organizations, has ultimate control over the civilian sector in wartime

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by then-home front defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by then-home front defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Seated before two rows of computers at the IDF Home Front Command’s headquarters in Ramle, in a modern industrial complex used both as a training center and command post, Avi Goldblatt, the director of an Elbit Systems homeland security simulator, begins shaping a wartime assault on Israel’s population.

At 9:55 a.m., Goldblatt, a Lt. Col. (res.) in the IDF’s Home Front Command, steers a volley of conventional missiles toward Allenby St. in Tel Aviv. Over the course of the next three hours, he lands chemical weapons strikes in the Dizengoff Center area, tinkers with the weather and the traffic and the location of the incoming missiles, and monitors every move, phone call and decision made by the IDF officer in charge of the greater Tel Aviv region during a national emergency, Col. (res.) Dan Geva.

Geva and his subordinate officers, all reservists, are dispersed throughout the building. Each is seated in front of a simulator. In a room on the lower level of the building, a battalion commander and his radio operator lean onto a joystick and send a silver mini-van scurrying through the empty streets of the city, rounding corners unevenly as it races through the life-like façade of Tel Aviv’s downtown, careening past lingerie stores and shawarma joints before arriving at the scene of a missile attack. A dead body is splayed on the sidewalk.

The commander presses a button and his Lego-like avatar, outfitted in full chemical protection gear, gets out of the mini-van and approaches the body. In the coming minutes he’ll have to verify for Geva the precise location of the missile strike and the nature of the attack.

A battalion commander in the IDF Home Front Command uses a simulator during a recent drill (photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
A battalion commander in the IDF Home Front Command uses a simulator during a recent drill (photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

“The first things I have to figure out are: where the strike took place, with what, and how to treat it,” says Geva, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer who performs nearly 100 days of reserve duty a year.

The home front attack simulator, which can drill a group of officers in a wide-scale exercise in a matter of hours and lays bare each operational decision taken by the commander of the drill, is a unique system currently used only by the IDF, although an Elbit Systems spokeswoman says it’s been sparking interest in other countries.

But the efficacy of the simulator does little to counteract the chaos at the top of Israel’s command structure, where the home front, a near-certain battleground during any future war, has largely slipped between the cracks.

Control over the home front, both in war and peace, was once the exclusive province of the IDF. Today, with the rising threat against Israel’s civilian population, the responsibility has been spread across several government ministries and national organizations, with no clearly defined hierarchy. Moreover, the IDF’s Home Front Command may be excised from the army and moved into the hands of the police. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after months of regular consultations, is set to rule on the matter — or at least provide a clear direction — on Thursday, the deputy director of the National Security Council, Zeev Zuk-Ram, revealed recently in Knesset.

Col. (res) Dan Geva during the simulator drill (Photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Col. (res) Dan Geva during the simulator drill (Photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

“There is only one pyramid of control” over the civilian sector in a time of emergency, Geva, the Home Front Command officer, said during the drill, and that is the IDF’s Home Front Command, which answers to the IDF chief of staff or the defense minister, depending on the nature of the scenario.

At least, that’s the traditional reading of the currently legislative reality. But to many, including MK Eli Yishai (Shas), the head of a Knesset committee charged with overseeing the home front, the pyramid of control in a time of national emergency looks more like 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.

“The changes that have been accepted in the distribution of responsibility over the home front in a time of emergency have created pandemonium that, in the end, will paralyze the defense establishment’s ability to function,” said Yishai, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on the Protection of the Home Front, during a June 26 Knesset session.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, in the latest of a series of reports about the perilously incoherent chain of command over the home front, detailed some of the major issues in need of a legislative solution. In his July report, he noted that both the army and the police are enabled by law 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.

There are three different ways to resolve the issue, according to Brig. Gen. (res) Meir Elran, a former deputy director of military intelligence and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

The first would be for the Home Front Command to be lawfully placed at the top of the pyramid, where it would act “as the leading agency in whatever is associated with preparing for and managing emergencies,” Elran wrote in a recent essay for the INSS. “This approach contends that this setup has proven itself to be adequate so far, and that it allows reasonable cooperation with the various organs while relying on the undisputed robustness of the defense establishment, especially as the threat is essentially a security one.”

IDF reserves troops during a May 29 home front drill (Photo credit: Flash90)
IDF reserves troops during a May 29 home front drill (Photo credit: Flash90)

The defense establishment appears to be split on whether or not it approves of such a solution, both yearning to be free of the yoke of responsibility for the vulnerable civilian sector and fearful of the repercussions of placing such widespread authority in civilian hands.

In April 2012 Achaz Ben-Ari, chief legal adviser to the Defense Ministry, wrote to the State Comptroller’s Office that “the responsibility placed on the chief of the General Staff includes the civilian sector. This being the case, it is likely required that the Home Front Command, in its current format, be removed from the IDF.”

Ben-Ari noted that he was cognizant of the fact that this recommendation entailed a sharp departure from current policy but wrote that “placing responsibility for the front line and the civilian sector on the chief of the General Staff could lead to a disaster in a time of emergency,” and therefore he was bringing his recommendation to light.

The IDF refused to respond to questions on the matter, citing the political nature of the dilemmas, but did indicate during a recent Knesset hearing that a shift to civilian control, as far as the army was concerned, would be at the public’s peril. Brig. Gen. Zvika Tessler, a top officer in the Home Front Command, called any move to assign responsibility to the Home Front Defense Ministry “a dangerous step” and contended that the Second Lebanon War was proof that all actions on the home front that were not carried out by the IDF “were a failure.”

The second option, the INSS’s Elran wrote, “holds that the normative and systemic formation should be fundamentally changed, with the Ministry of Internal Security [sic] positioned at the top.”

This is the position advanced by the National Security Council and it has been presented to Netanyahu, who has of late been holding monthly sessions on the state of the home front. “It is wrong for the IDF chief of the staff to be dealing, in a time of emergency, with missiles falling on the home front,” Zuk-Ram, the National Security Council deputy director, said at the Knesset meeting. He noted, in addition, that the Defense Ministry, burdened with hundreds of other pressing matters, had not allocated a single shekel for gas mask acquisition in 2014, despite the fact that roughly 40 percent of the population was ill-equipped and the assembly lines needed NIS 200 million ($56 million) merely to remain open.

According to this line of thinking, the civilian solutions for essentially civilian problems would be provided by the civilian police force. And yet, what Tessler failed to mention was the Israel Police’s 2010 debacle in dealing with the Carmel forest fire, which left 44 Israelis dead and was so poorly handled from a control and command perspective that the prospect of such an organization handling what could turn out to be the main front of the next war is a cause for concern for many senior army officers.

Finally, there is the middle road, strongly advocated for by Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud-Beytenu), which differentiates between command over an emergency situation on the home front and peace-time preparation for such a situation. “We do not want there to be a situation where soldiers aren’t sure to whom to listen while missiles are falling on the home front: Minister Erdan or the chief of the General Staff,” said Kobi Ellenbogen, Erdan’s spokesman, “but rather to prepare the home front, during a quiet time, for an emergency.”

Gilad Erdan, in pink tie, upon taking office. Far right is his predecessor, Avi Dichter (photo credit: Defense Ministry/Flash 90)
Gilad Erdan, in pink tie, upon taking office. Far right is his predecessor, Avi Dichter (photo credit: Defense Ministry/Flash 90)

In the current situation, Ellenbogen said, the minister has plenty of responsibility but no authority. As opposed to the minister for the protection of the environment, for example, who has regulatory authority, Erdan cannot set standards and close factories that do not adhere to them. “Today the minister cannot force Israel’s electric company to abide by a certain standard of missile protection,” he said. Nor can he dictate how much generator fuel each hospital must have or the amount of flour and yeast kept on hand at certain key bakeries in the city, Ellenbogen added.

There is clear logic in Erdan’s plan, and yet the ministry, which was created under dubious circumstances, has had a hard time convincing the public — which has far greater faith in the IDF — that it should be at the top of the pyramid on all matters relating to the home front.

“The root of the problem is that, by definition, the challenge to the home front is directed mainly against civilians and civilian systems, and thus it (primarily) requires inherently civilian responses,” Elran wrote. “On the other hand, in Israel there is still a common assumption – and consequently, norm – that the defense establishment and the IDF are the ultimate response providers to the challenges, certainly those that originate with an external enemy.”

Reached in his Tel Aviv office and asked to recommend a course of action to the prime minister, who is set to decide on the matter in the coming days, Elran, who also served as a special consultant to the Winograd Commission investigating the Second Lebanon War, said he did not want to wade into political issues and would not do more than present the issues and the challenges to each approach.

“Each position has its pros and cons,” he said. “But the heart of the matter is less who will be in charge and more that someone be in charge.”

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