No one can say when the next war will come, but when it does, Israel's main cities will almost certainly come under sustained bombardment by thousands of tons of warheads. That scenario has the military commanders responsible for protecting its citizens in a frenzy of preparedness.
Across the country this summer Israelis have been subject to home front drills, sending people scurrying into shelters, sirens blaring and gas masks distributed. Defense planners want to use underground parking garages and road tunnels as massive bomb shelters. Israel's enemies - Hizbullah in the north, Hamas in the south, and Syria and Iran to the east - are stocking up missiles on an unprecedented scale.
"Most of the rockets that are in the world today are pointed at Israel," Avi Schnurr, executive director of the Israel Missile Defense Association, told The Media Line. "The work that has been done in Israel, the leadership shown in terms of missile defense, has been extraordinary."
Matan Vilnai, Israel's minister for home front defense, told a conference on missile defense on Monday that Palestinian rockets will hit Tel Aviv in any future conflict in the Gaza Strip.
"In the next conflict with Gaza, even if it is at a much lower intensity than a war, missiles will fall on Gush Dan -- for all intents and purposes, inside Tel Aviv," Vilnai said, referring to the heavily populated center of the country.
"Terror organizations are making great efforts in order to threaten our heartland," he added. "Today we understand that the next war there will be no difference between the rear and the front line."
"There is no country in the world that is threatened like the State of Israel," Vilnai said, adding that only South Korea came close.
Last month, Israel carried out a massive five-day exercise drilling its home front on dealing with a massive missile attack. Dubbed "Turning Point 5," the drill involved testing the nationwide siren-alert system, distribution of nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) protection kits, evacuations and shelter procedures. For the first time, lawmakers also participated in the exercise.
The way the drill was played out saw Hizbullah launching rocket attacks on Israel, joined by missile barrages from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Finally, Syria joins in with rocket strikes. Israeli intelligence estimates that among the 50,000 rockets in Hizbullah's arsenal, at least a few hundred can reach Tel Aviv. Syria's formidable arsenal of Scud rockets are tipped with chemical and possibly biological warheads, and can reach nearly every location in the country.
"Syria possesses one of the largest ballistic missile-development programs in the region. Its arsenal already includes hundreds of mobile SCUD-class and short-range ballistic missiles," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Frank Rose said in Tel Aviv on Monday.
Speaking at the missile conference, Rose said the U.S. would continue to collaborate with Israel on its missile defenses and said that it was soon dispatching to the region another early-warning radar system to enhance Israel's missile-detection capabilities.
The civil defense exercises have coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, which saw Hizbullah fire more than 4,000 rockets at northern Israel. That was seen as many as an impetus for the reforms, but the true turning point in Israel's history came 20 years ago in the aftermath of the First Gulf War when nearly 40 Iraqi Scud rockets struck its city centers.
"This was the first time that we understood that we have to pay attention to what we call the rear, citizens trying to live their normal lives back home," Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yitzhak Ben-Israel, head of security studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
Israel developed a multi-layered active defense against missiles that include systems such as the Arrow, Iron Dome and David Sling to intercept rockets. Israeli citizens are arguably one of the most protected in the world. By law, all apartments or houses built since 1991 must have a bomb shelter and the bulk of the population is equipped with gas masks.
In December, Israel's Air Defense Command inaugurated a national warning system called the Ballistic Picture Control Center that links all early-warning radars detecting missile strikes. In June, the Personal Message System came on line that sends text messages to mobile phones in an area where a missile is expected to hit.
Intelligence reports were leaked last week saying that the embattled Syrian regime had been transferring missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon, including 10 Scud-D class rockets due to the unrest sweeping the country. If true, this would mark the first time that a non-state organization holds such destructive weaponry.
The motivation behind the transfer seems to be concern that anti-government protesters may raid the warehouses, a further sign that Hizbullah's benefactor Iran may sense President Bashar Al-Assad's rule was ending.
The reports appear to have been sidelined by other issues in Israel that the public has found more pressing and tangible, such as rising housing costs, striking doctors and the price of cottage cheese.
But according to Amir Rapaport, a former military analyst for the daily Ma'ariv, there is another reason for this behavior: suppression.
"As in recent years, the Israeli public prefers to suppress the dramatically expanding missile threat from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza," Rapaport wrote, adding that Israel's options in the matter were limited to aggressive diplomatic warnings, or attacking them, thus risking igniting a Third Lebanon War.
The IDF's Home Front command is predicting that another confrontation with Hizbullah will see at least 400 rockets pounding the northern port city of Haifa. For this reason, it is working to turn the Carmel Tunnel into a public bomb shelter able to hold some 6,000 people. There are also plans to prepare a field hospital in the tunnel.
The National Emergency Authority is also reportedly seeking legislation giving it the power to expropriate parking lots and other underground spaces to provide the public with vital services during an emergency.
While the leaders and commanders in Israel have been highlighting the risk of nuclear-tipped missile from Iran, they have rarely spoken of the other, potentially more deadly in scope, threat that comes from chemical weapons. These are aimed at Israel in staggering quantities.
According to the Israel Defense website, Germany has offered to give Israel eight TEP 90 decontamination systems free of charge.
In the future, the warheads are expected to be more numerous and deadlier. They won't just damage apartment buildings, but topple them. Some have warheads weighing hundreds of kilos such as the M-600, Fateh-110 and Scud Ds with a nearly half ton warhead. The drills are as much psychological preparation as they are physical.
"The effect of rockets and missiles is pretty much psychological and the way to deal with it is to train and explain and instruct the population so they understand what they have to do to reduce their physical load," said Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a former director of research and development at Israel's Defense Ministry.
Paradoxically, it was Israel's ability to vanquish it enemies on the battlefield that led them to seek other methods of threatening the Jewish state. Missiles allow them to bypass the army, slip by its air force and hit its civilian soft underbelly where it hurts the most.
"Almost all of our hostile neighbors chose to move in the direction of missiles and rockets because it was a kind of a weak point on our side," Ben-Israel said.
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