7 million Israelis rehearse for war

Israel is launching its largest-ever emergency drill next week, but the government insists that it is a routine exercise.

Next Tuesday, sirens will sound throughout Israel, and the entire population will be requested to take shelter in “protected spaces”.

The nationwide alert will be the high point of the Defence Ministry and IDF Home Command’s exercise, “Turning Point 3”.

All the emergency and rescue services, both military and civil, will take part in the exercise. It begins on Sunday with a session of the Cabinet, which will practise its own special emergency procedures.

A particular emphasis will be put on the co-operation between the IDF and local authorities, which have been granted broader-than-normal responsibilities for keeping key services running.

Among the scenarios are a multiple missile attack on Haifa and a chemical-warfare strike in Eilat. All hospitals will practise for receiving patients injured in a chemical attack, and the Home Command’s rescue battalions will practise on a building that will be demolished specifically for the exercise.

In preparation, every family in the country has been supplied with guidelines on how to select and equip a “protected space” at home, and how many seconds there are to reach it in case of emergency. Special information packs have been prepared for the Arab and Charedi communities, including leaflets in Yiddish.

On Monday, Defence Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that the government had received “signals” of concern from Arab countries over Israel’s intentions, but said that “this a routine exercise which was planned months ago, we have one of these every year”.

According to intelligence assessments, Israel’s closest enemy, Syria, has about 50,000 missiles that are aimed at Israel, and Hizbollah in Lebanon has 20,000.

While the published scenarios for the exercise are missile strikes from the north and terror attacks, IDF officers have confirmed that the threat from Iran figures in all their plans. “We are planning for all eventualities,” said a senior office in the IDF’s Home Command, “but we are not talking publicly about Iran right now.”

Last week, the Israeli Air Force conducted its own annual big exercise which involved all its squadrons and airbases. Air force officers in off-record briefings stressed that the squadrons did not carry out long-range missions, which would have been perceived as a preparation to attack targets in Iran.

Last year, the air force conducted a large-scale exercise over the Aegean Sea in a move that was interpreted as a dress rehearsal for an attack on the Iranian nuclear installations. The air force’s assurances did not put all minds at ease and on Friday, Ma’ariv published a story headlined: “The Air Force is Training for War with Iran”.

To which one air force officer said: “Of course we are training for war, that is what armies do.”

Last updated: 12:43pm, May 27 2009