Jim Hollander/EPA/Newscom

The eye of the storm

Israel | Israelis contemplate a possible war against Iran with little worry but keen knowledge of what's at stake

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

Iran's nuclear ambitions are an international dilemma, but nowhere is the threat more urgent than in neighboring Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that April negotiations in Istanbul gave a "freebie" to Iran of another five weeks-the timeframe until the next round of talks. This only increased speculation about when Israel will decide Iran's nuclear program is too close to the "point of no return" and launch an attack: This summer? Early fall? After the U.S. presidential election in November?

No one knows the plans being drafted behind closed doors, but this much remains certain: An attack on Iran-American or Israeli-would create a level of chaos and upheaval in the Middle East not seen in decades, and would lead to countless retaliatory attacks against Israel.

With rockets in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Gaza pointed at Israeli population centers plus increasing threats from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, one assumes the average Israeli citizen is frantically preparing for war, anxious about both the present and the future. But according to the people I spoke with in Israel, the picture is markedly different. This is "life as usual" for many Israelis. They are looking to their own political and military leaders, hoping they're prepared to defend the country and protect its citizens should the need arise.

Local preparedness

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Rebekah Harvey is an American citizen who has lived in Tel Aviv with her husband and four children for more than a year. She says it is primarily her or other Americans who bring up the topic of the Iranian threat: "My Israeli friends often comment how Israel has been at war or threat of war their entire lives." One Israeli neighbor told her that is was pointless to buy a house because it "could be destroyed at any time since none of our neighboring countries like us."

Guy Faigenboim, an accountant and lawyer from Tel Aviv, concurs with this assessment. "Every year it's quite regular that we are prepared for war," he told me, citing countless rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel. "Maybe on TV they say, 'do this and do that,' but people are not worried."

People are also not prepared, according to Meir Litvak, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. "When people speak of problems, they might speak of a war in the summer. But you don't see any preparations, at least publicly," he said.

Ze'ev Bielski, the chairman of the Knesset subcommittee on Israel's home defense, agrees that the Israeli home front is not ready for a war. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that although they've made improvements since the Lebanon War of 2006, "the situation is not good."

Iran has hundreds of Shahab-3 missiles, and analysts estimate that Iranian proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have at least 60,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. In 1996, Israel passed a law requiring new homes and apartments to include a reinforced room that could withstand missile and rocket attacks, but many contractors have found ways around the law.

The last missile assault on Tel Aviv was during the Iraq War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel in retaliation for the U.S. invasion, and Bielski said close to 1.7 million Israelis-out of a population of about 7.5 million-do not currently have access to a bomb shelter or fortified room.

Given their history, Israelis are more prepared than most. Harvey's home has its own bomb shelter but Faigenboim's does not. He plans to take his wife and four kids to his neighbor's bomb shelter should missiles rain down on Tel Aviv, home for two-thirds of Israel's population.

Another option is the bomb shelter four stories underneath the plaza of the Habima national theater. The recently completed shelter has space and supplies for 2,000 people, but a report by the state controller concludes that many of the country's shelters are not war-ready.

Gas masks are also on the country's preparedness checklist. Israel has only enough gas masks-considered a necessity in the event of a chemical or biological attack-for 60 percent of its citizens.

A news report detailed the process for picking up your gas mask at one of Israel's distribution centers. A side note highlighted the unique world Israelis live in: If you have a gas mask that you received from the Home Front Command within the past two years, you do not need a new one.

Military preparedness

Faigenboim explains that he is only a little worried because he trusts his leaders, his government, and his military to handle the situation with Tehran and its proxies.


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