Saturday 30 May 2009

Practice or the Real Thing?

The newspaper advertisement states that a practice siren will be sounded throughout Israel on Tuesday 2nd June 2009. Upon hearing the siren, all the country's residents are requested to enter a "protected space". The purpose of this, it seems, is to test how long it takes to get the entire population into bomb shelters or protected rooms. The practice siren forms part of a week-long series of drills that will be conducted to assess the country's preparedness for an emergency. We, the Israeli public, are being told by our home front command that this is simply a drill being undertaken to implement the recommendations arising out of the Second Lebanon War. We are told that there is no deeper significance to the drill being held at this time.

Clearly, the fact that we need a drill at all signals the constant risk under which we live. Such drills, after all, are carried out in very few countries around the world. The question that I am asking, however, is whether the timing and nature of this drill indicates something lurking behind the scenes that the Israeli public are not being made aware of? With the current threat of possible hostilities from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and continued threats from Iran, the question that I ask is not without foundation. Add to that the somewhat ambivalent relationship with Fatah in the West Bank and we have more reasons to have a drill than not.

The attempts by the home front command to downplay the significance and timing of the drill are countered by other seemingly innocuous events. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon has been escalating ahead of the drill. Hezbollah are using the drill to indicate that Israel is preparing for further cross-border hostilities following the war in the summer of 2006. In light of this, Hezbollah has not hesitated to advertise that they are ready for any possible raids across Israel's northern border, and that its armoury is replenished and ready for action. It is well known that the war in 2006 made hardly a dent in Hezbollah's military capacity. On the contrary, their success in holding the mighty Israeli army at bay simply provided them with the courage and desire to again confront and embarrass the IDF at the earliest possible opportunity. Moving further south, after a less successful campaign earlier this year than that of Hezbollah, Hamas seems to have wasted little time in replenishing its military supplies. Whilst I don't believe that they are quite ready yet for another round, it will not take too long until Hamas also wishes to engage the IDF once more.

I have observed that there has been a great deal of effort in my home town to rig up signposts indicating the location of all public bomb shelters in the town. In addition, these public bomb shelters, which are often used as storage rooms during periods of quiet, have all been opened up and cleaned out. Could it be that this huge effort has been undertaken only in the interests of the one-day drill? It seems to me that a drill would not demand such a large effort. I don't recall this being done for the previous drill that took place more than a year ago. So why is it necessary now? Maybe it is my paranoia, but I have the feeling that this drill is more than just a drill. I have the feeling that the security forces may have a higher expectation of a further outbreak of hostilities than they are currently making publicly known.

Because of its situation, the Israeli public is able to ready itself for war in a relatively short period of time. All new homes, apartments and office buildings are required by law to have a "protected space". This should be able to withstand an explosion and should be sealed to prevent the infiltration of chemicals in the event that unconventional warheads are launched. So, to arrange for citizens to be ready for a missile attack should not require a great deal of prior warning. At the time of the outbreak of the first and second Gulf Wars, when the risk of the use of unconventional weapons was deemed to be high, the government issued gas masks and chemical anti-dotes to all citizens. Currently, the gas masks have been collected up and none have been reissued in their place. Providing that the risk of attack is with conventional weapons only, Israel can be ready within a few short days or less.

Inevitably, as we approach the long hot summer and with a possible conflict in the back of my mind, my thoughts turn to Iran. Is this drill all about readying ourselves for a possible strike on the Iranian nuclear facility? I have previously written that I think that this is unlikely. However, when living in the Middle East, I have learned that anything is possible.

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