Israel's enemies have put the entire civilian population on the frontline'



Friday, March 29, 2013

In a candid and revealing interview, Head of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, assesses Israel’s readiness for future conflicts.

By Amos Harel

November 2012, Operation Pillar of Defense. Residents of Nitzan taking shelter during a rocket attack. Photo by Nir Kafri

Eisenberg: “Both sides will emerge bruised from the event, though we can rehabilitate faster.” Photo by Moti Milrod

The penny finally dropped in the wake of the 4,200 rockets that rained down on Israel during the 34 days of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Since then, as all parties to the conflict are now well aware, it has been understood that every large or small military campaign will be accompanied by massive rocket and missile fire into Israel’s populated areas.

The job of Home Front Commander carries a high risk professionally (the HFC in the Second Lebanon War, Maj. Gen. [res.] Yitzhak Gershon, was subsequently forced to retire ), but its importance is no longer in doubt. At the same time, it offers little glory as a reward. While other generals are imagining decisive maneuvers deep inside enemy territory, the HFC must immerse himself in small details – such as how to ensure that infants get milk, or organizing beds in field hospitals in the event of a war.

Like his predecessors, the current HFC, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, has few illusions about the character of any future confrontation. He does not want to be considered a scaremonger, he tells Haaretz in an interview, but notes that “the next war will not be easy. If I could [I would] paint it for the individual civilian in the right colors … but I don’t have a point of reference. It will be different. Our enemies have abandoned the approach of vanquishing us, which guided them in earlier wars, and more recently have adopted an attrition approach. You see an impressive process in which they are arming themselves with rockets and missiles whose only purpose is to strike at the Israeli civilian rear. That is a dramatic change.”

Even though the Second Lebanon War, in which Eisenberg fought as a division commander, ended with mixed results, Hezbollah continues to perceive its rocket fire at the civilian population as a relative success. “That’s the easiest investment for the organization,” Eisenberg notes, “a simple means of combat that creates a comparatively large impact for a limited financial outlay. It’s like a low-cost insurance policy. Before 2006, Hezbollah was capable of launching 500 warheads at Metropolitan Tel Aviv. The reason that didn’t happen is that the Iranian-made Fajr rockets were destroyed by the air force on the first night of the war, and the longer-range Zelzal rockets were destroyed in the days that followed. At present, Hezbollah has the capacity to launch about 10 times that number, with the warheads both heavier and more accurate.”

In practical terms, this means that in the event of a war with Hezbollah, the metropolitan Tel Aviv region “will come under a massive missile barrage. Hezbollah has at its disposal about 5,000 warheads, weighing between 300 and 800 kilograms each. In my estimation, the first days will be extremely difficult. I am preparing for a scenario in which more than a thousand missiles and rockets a day are fired at the civilian rear.”

Israel is not looking for this confrontation, Eisenberg says. “That kind of war will not be worthwhile for the other side,” he says. “Israel is capable of inflicting serious damage on its enemies on a scale of hundreds of percent more than they are capable of inflicting on us,” with the use of the far more destructive and precise munitions in the Israel Air Force’s possession. “The adversary will have to choose if he wants to see heaps of rubble when he comes out of the bunker at the end of the war. The problem is that, in the end, both sides will emerge bruised from the event, though we can rehabilitate faster.”

The new frontline

A year and a half ago, at the height of the public debate over the necessity of an attack on Iran, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio that “in no scenario will there be even 500 civilian casualties” following a missile war. Even though the collective public memory is that Barak was referring to the number of Israelis who would be killed, he was actually talking about killed and wounded together, and drawing on estimates of operations research in the defense establishment. “We are examining whether to reevaluate this,” Eisenberg admits. “The threat is changing before our eyes. In the next war, for the first time, we might have more civilians killed on the home front than soldiers on the combat front.” (In fact, this was already the case in the second intifada, because of the Palestinian suicide bombings against the civilian population in Israel. )

To some degree, the HFC says, this will amount to “breaking the state’s pact with the citizen – who always knew he was in the rear, and suddenly will find himself on a second front. We will not be able to sustain the war with military means alone. We have to do much in the way of ensuring steadfastness, the ability of people to stand firm for the long haul. I prefer not to engage in frightening people, but in training and drills that provide civilians with knowledge, instill confidence and generate the ability to cope with the challenge.

“In the south of the country,” he continues, “people have learned how to cope with the rocket threat from Gaza. I don’t say they have learned how to live with it, heaven forbid – it’s not sane to live with missiles. But they are able to cope in moments of crisis. If a war breaks out, it can be ended with fewer than the hundreds of dead being talked about in the scenarios, given the right behavior by the civilian population. Obedience to instructions in the past, in previous confrontations, saved many lives. Today, after missiles were fired at Tel Aviv during Operation Pillar of Defense last November, I think that people in the center of the country grasp just how concrete the threat is.”

Since last fall, media preoccupation with a possible Israeli attack on Iran has declined, only to be replaced by growing fears that the deterioration of the civil war in Syria will eventually bring about an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah. The bombing of a convoy carrying advanced antiaircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah(for which Israel did not officially take responsibility) heightened the public interest in developments. Eisenberg says, laconically, that although Military Intelligence does not see a war initiated by an Arab army as a likely possibility, “The quantity of gas fumes in the region has risen greatly. There is a high possibility that an errant match will ignite the Middle East. A tactical clash could lead to an all-out war. We are very uneasy, but that is part of our job. Israelis pay high taxes, in part for this, too. The country’s citizens have to go on living their lives,” he advises. If and when a war breaks out, “every citizen will have to understand that he will become a soldier in the campaign, in his personal behavior, in the way he expresses himself, in demonstrating resilience and determination over time.”

The chemical weapons stocks of the Assad regime in Syria are under constant surveillance by regional and Western intelligence services, including those of Israel, and Eisenberg does not “envisage chemical warfare being launched against us.” However, he continues, “Is it possible that chemical weapons of one kind or another will fall into the wrong hands and be used? Definitely. Is there some possibility of a terrorist attack with nonconventional weapons in the future? Unequivocally, yes. That will not vanquish Israel. We are ready and able to handle that type of event.”

Despite the growing danger that chemical weapons will be used, the government has not decided to allot greater funds for the purchase of protective kits. (Presently, less than 60 percent of the public is equipped with the appropriate kits.) Even though Home Front Command has recommended this in the past, Eisenberg knows it is unlikely to happen. “If you ask me where I would put the first extra shekel,” he says, “I choose the warning system.”

HFC has worked out a plan to ensure more precise warnings about incoming missiles, down to the level of a warning siren covering areas of just a few square kilometers, with relatively normal life being enabled elsewhere during the missile event. Money, as usual, is the challenge. The price tag for the plan, which is based largely on upgrading software in the existing computer system, is NIS 338 million. Eisenberg is convinced that the project will be cost-effective − indeed, will pay for itself − within a few years. “Just think of the benefit to the economy if we could avoid shutting down industrial plants,” he says.

Responsibility and steadfastness

Operation Pillar of Defense was the last round of fighting in which rockets were fired at the civilian rear. Some 1,500 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip over eight days. They took the lives of six Israelis − four civilians and two soldiers. The big cities in the south − Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, along with Sderot − bore the brunt of the rocket fire. The Iron Dome antimissile system successfully intercepted about 85 percent of the rockets that posed a danger (according to IDF figures).

Eisenberg cautions against drawing conclusions from this about the character of a broader confrontation. “That was a small operation against an enemy with limited offensive strength, even though the daily average of rockets that were fired from Gaza was far higher than the average in Operation Cast Lead or from Lebanon in 2006.”

The operation last November allowed the Home Front Command to examine its full-scale operational doctrine for the first time. The local authorities functioned well, Eisenberg says: “The mayors and council heads displayed responsibility and steadfastness. The political decision makers thus had considerable maneuverability. No pressure was put on the prime minister to end the operation sooner than was necessary. The Be’er Sheva Municipality, for example, deserves praise. Twenty minutes after a missile struck, the municipality already had an official at the scene, the damage was repaired and regular life was restored. The heads of the local governments understand that national resilience is not dictated by a government decision. It starts with the citizen and continues with the local leadership.”

At the start of the operation, Eisenberg reveals, “we had a major dilemma. We knew they could fire at Metropolitan Tel Aviv. Should we declare a special situation at a distance of 80 or 40 kilometers from Gaza? It is clear to me that Israel’s national resilience is also linked to the ability to maintain functional continuity [the functioning of the country’s vital systems during bombardments] and to avert serious economic damage.

“At our recommendation,” he continues, “Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared a ‘special situation’ only in the 40 kilometers adjacent to the Gaza Strip. In the 40 kilometers beyond that, we prepared the population for the possibility of missile fire. When missiles were fired, the people of Metropolitan Tel Aviv were not taken by surprise. Hamas was out to create panic. But Hamas encountered a different civilian rear. The people behaved superbly and their behavior showed that Israeli society is not made of spider webs [Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed in 2000 that Israel was ‘more fragile than a spider web’]. The resilience was seen precisely in the open cafes in Metropolitan Tel Aviv.”

Israel’s rocket interception system claimed most of the attention during the operation. “Because of the success of Iron Dome, the civilian population perceived the confrontation as being less intensive than it actually was,” Eisenberg says. “But it has to be remembered that the antimissile batteries only protect specified zones, mainly in the big cities. From the viewpoint of our basic assumption, we are still operating without active protection. Self-defense instructions are issued to civilians as though there were no such defense systems. We are not talking about 100 percent success. In the end, some rockets might slip through. Therefore, along with the implementation of the intercept systems, I say to the civilian population: Go into a protected space. You can also be hit by fragments.”

The five operational Iron Dome batteries were barely enough to accord protection from missiles for most of the population in the south of the country and in Metropolitan Tel Aviv during Operation Pillar of Defense. They will not be enough in a confrontation with Hezbollah, which possesses far more rockets than the Palestinians in Gaza. For years, there have been arguments within the defense establishment about where to deploy the antimissile batteries in wartime.

For the first time, Eisenberg presents the approach of the HFC on the issue. “I will recommend protecting the country’s functional continuity and the ability to maintain an IDF offensive effort over time, until the war is won,” he says. “That means protecting power plants and the air force bases before the big cities. Possibly in the future we will be able to do both. But as of now, with the order of battle of batteries and intercept missiles available to us, we will have to introduce an order of priorities in resources.

“We will have to make a tough, trenchant and clear decision,” he adds. “Afterward, we might be able to provide protection for the majority of the country’s population in the regions under threat. But that will happen with a model of ten-plus batteries, and we are not yet there.”

The defense establishment has already decided to acquire ten batteries, with American aid. But it will take at least two years before ten operational batteries are deployed.

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