West Bank settlements simulate string of disasters to train for the real thing
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West Bank settlements simulate string of disasters to train for the real thing

In large-scale drill, Binyamin region practices response to a deadly Gaza rocket attack, back-to-back shootings, and a contaminated water supply — all in the span of a few hours

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Firefighters extinguish a blaze in a car during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)
Firefighters extinguish a blaze in a car during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

The central West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim had a tough day last Wednesday: one of its schools was hit by a deadly rocket strike and its water supply became contaminated, while terrorists conducted back-to-back shootings at nearby settlements. Luckily, it was all a simulation.

As part of an effort to prepare local governments for war, the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command organized a massive exercise in the Binyamin region last week, complete with pyrotechnics, smoke machines, rocket sirens, and simulated casualties.

The Mateh Binymanin regional council, which represents the settlements surrounding the city of Ramallah, led the response to the various scenarios in the drill, coordinating with the military, emergency medical personnel, fire and rescue services, utility companies, and the National Emergency Management Authority, known in Hebrew by its acronym, “Rachel.”

“The central aspect of this exercise is that it’s both military and civilian — it tests all of the different components of the state,” said Mateh Binyamin Mayor Yisrael Gantz. “One of the goals of this exercise is to check that the emergency services in the area know how to respond to larger events.”

The exercise played out in several acts throughout the course of the morning and early afternoon: Amid a war in Gaza, residents of the Strip-adjacent community of Sa’ad are sent up to the Binyamin region to take temporary shelter there; as these refugees arrive, a missile fired from Gaza directly hits the Ma’ayanot Eshkol Middle School in Kfar Adumim, killing and injuring several of those inside and causing destruction nearby; in the midst of the rescue efforts, a shooting attack is carried out nearby, in which one person is lightly injured, followed by a second attack shortly thereafter, in which one person is seriously wounded; and during it all, the region is hit by power outages and issues with the water supply.

Firefighters work to free a trapped inflatable dummy during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

In the middle of the exercise, an actual emergency took place — a car went off the side of the road and into a ditch outside Kfar Adumim. No one was injured.

It was an exercise designed to overwhelm the local government and emergency response services.

“Since we don’t do exercises every month or every other month in Mateh Binyamin or in the other local governments in Judea and Samaria, when we do hold one, we try to have as many scenarios in as little time as possible in order to put stress on the system, to see how they deal with it,” said Lt. Orel Cohen, who serves as a liaison between the IDF Home Front Command and local governments.

Cohen said that, this year, the Home Front Command’s exercises with these local authorities were focused on preparing for war scenarios, not earthquakes as in some previous years.

Military and civilian medics evacuate simulated casualties during an IDF exercise in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

Anticipating the next question, he quickly added: “I know what you’re going to ask. It’s not because we have intelligence that war is imminent.”

In their after-action review, the representatives of the various organizations and services in Mateh Binyamin identified several areas that could be improved: better communication and organization, larger stores of emergency equipment, and considering not only the immediate problems, but also preparing for those that lie ahead if the fighting were to last several weeks.

But Lt. Col. (res.) Michel Morag, of the IDF Home Front Command, who observed the exercise, largely praised the regional council for its response to the emergencies.

“I don’t normally give out scores, but I take my hat off to you,” Morag told Gantz during the review session.

Cohen noted that it was a particularly complicated and difficult exercise, which he said was a testament to the abilities of the local government.

“Mateh Binyamin has a strong regional council. It can handle this exercise, not every government can,” he said.

Firefighters work to free a trapped inflatable dummy during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

Asked if it wouldn’t be better to give the tougher exercise to struggling local governments in order to help them practice, Cohen said that that would instead hurt weaker municipalities.

“If you come to someone whose capabilities are less, they will crash instead of learn,” he said.

Back-to-back-to-back disasters

The exercise began at 9 a.m. on Wednesday with a meeting of the various services and groups that make up the Mateh Binyamin regional council — the education system, social services, communications, etc. — in the local government’s offices in the Psagot settlement.

The basic scenario was that the Israel Defense Forces fully returned to its policy of so-called “targeted killings,” assassinating several terrorist leaders in Gaza, prompting terror groups in the Strip to begin launching rockets at Israel. In light of the onslaught, 120 families from Kibbutz Sa’ad were coming to the Binyamin region for temporary shelter.

“There are high tensions and fears in the Binyamin communities,” the scenario description said.

Gantz, a wiry, bearded and bespectacled 41-year-old, went around the room ensuring that all those present were up-to-date and ready for the exercise.

Representatives from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council hold a meeting ahead of an IDF exercise in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

“In order to manage a complicated situation, we need to be concise,” he told the representatives, before asking them for status updates, occasionally cutting people off when they started to ramble and rephrasing his questions to require a straightforward yes-or-no response.

Afterward, Gantz told The Times of Israel: “With something that’s complex and involves different groups, you need to be quick and to-the-point. Otherwise, you just can’t manage it.”

The families from Sa’ad — played by students from a nearby pre-army program — arrived at a school in the Alon settlement, where faculty members who were somewhat perturbed by the interruption to their students’ schedules received and assisted the faux-refugees.

Around the same time, at 10:10 a.m., a siren sounded in Kfar Adumim followed moments later by a simulated rocket strike hitting the Ma’ayanot Eshkol Middle School.

The organizers of the exercise set up a “destruction site” down the road from the school, setting a car on fire and putting inflatable dummies under concrete slabs in order to simulate a scenario in which people are trapped in the debris.

Firefighters — both from the civilian Fire and Rescue Services and the military’s Home Front Command — extinguished the blaze and used high-powered tools and their own hands to free the trapped casualties. An IDF soldier also simulated a casualty being hit on rocky terrain in order to force the United Hatzalah medical service to use one of its all-terrain vehicles to safely remove her.

Emergency response personnel search a school that was filled with mock smoke during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack on a school in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/ The Times of Israel)

At the school itself, organizers filled the building with thick — but safely inert — smoke and had students act as victims.

Medics from the Magen David Adom ambulance service, United Hatzalah, and the IDF worked together to treat and evacuate the 17 casualties.

Some of the “victims” simulated serious injuries, while others pretended to be lightly wounded but nevertheless in need of rapid evacuation for other reasons, like a pregnant woman, played by an adolescent boy with a pillow under his shirt.

In the case of such an emergency, the first medics on the scene take charge of the treatment and evacuation operation, according to Cpt. Roey Simon, an IDF medical officer, who took part in the exercise.

Those simulating the most serious conditions were sent — on paper, at least — to either Jerusalem’s hospitals by ambulance or to Petah Tikva’s Beilinson Medical Center by helicopter, according to Simon.

Military and civilian medics evacuate simulated casualties during an IDF exercise in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

While that was happening, at 10:48 a.m., Cohen decided to throw the exercise participants a curveball.

“Give them a shooting incident at Givat Harel,” he told the organizers over the phone, referring to another settlement in the Binyamin region.

A moment later, those taking part in the drill received a text message update: “Shots fired at the entrance gate to Givat Harel.”

That simulated attack scenario included one person injured and the assailants fleeing the scene.

About an hour later, shortly after noon, participants received reports of another simulated shooting attack, this one outside Kfar Adumim. In that scenario, two people were wounded, one seriously, and the two gunmen were shot by security forces.

United Hatzalah medics load a mock casualty onto an all-terrain vehicle during an IDF exercise simulating a rocket attack in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

According to Gantz, the first, arguably less serious shooting attack could have signified a more important issue for the local government to deal with amid the chaos of a deadly rocket strike.

“During an emergency, you can’t handle every incident. This is precisely the exercise, to check that we know that,” Gantz said.

“We need to know is the event still ‘alive’ or is it ‘dead.’ If it’s dead, it’s not interesting. Afterward, we can do an investigation. But if it’s alive, we need to determine if it’s something isolated or if it has wider implications. If it’s an unfolding event, you have to deal with it from the top down,” he said. “In this case, we had a deputy mayor running the event.”

Representatives from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council hold a meeting following an IDF exercise in the Kfar Adumim settlement in the central West Bank on December 11, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/The Times of Israel)

The exercise ended shortly after 12:30 p.m., and was followed by the after-action review.

Though there were some critiques of the local authorities’ responses, the feedback was generally positive. Finding these areas of weakness is a major reason to hold these kinds of exercises.

“We do exercises during peacetime so that things work well during an emergency,” Cohen said.

Cohen, the Home Front Command lieutenant, said the military has been stepping up its exercises with local governments in the past two years.

“We’ve started working more intensively,” he said. “We have some local governments doing more advanced work and others that are a bit weaker and we’re doing more basic things with them and, God willing, one day, they’ll be at the level of Mateh Binyamin.”

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