It must be serious if the Muppets are involved. A few days ago I, like everyone else, received a leaflet produced by the Home Front Defence, explaining how to prepare my house and workplace for “emergency situations” and “dangers”. Presumable to make it more family-friendly, it has pictures of a Home Front Defence soldier with a Muppet, smiling as they tell us to ready ourselves.
The first page has this line in bold:
“The challenges that stand ahead of us are known to all of us. We have the ability to tackle them”
Talking to my friends, mainly Olim like me who haven’t been through one of these before, I’m not convinced that the challenges are known to all of us. There’s plenty of confusion about what we’re defending against, and this confusion isn’t good. People are less likely to take sensible measures to protect themselves if they don’t really understand the threat.
For example, there’s a certain amount of black humour around picking up our gas masks and preparing our sealed rooms. There’s always someone who says “of course, all this would be useless against a nuclear attack.” “A gas mask won’t do much against radiation” and other similar remarks.
And they’re right. Israel is in no way ready for a nuclear attack. It has bomb shelters but not the deeper fallout shelters that you see signposted on Manhattan apartment blocks. A wet towel by the gap under the door won’t stop ionising radiation
All of this is irrelevant though, because Israel isn’t under an imminent threat of nuclear attack. Unlike the USA in the 1960s, none of our enemies possess nuclear weapons. More specifically, Iran doesn’t have a bomb and isn’t going to get one in the next few weeks. If Israel strikes Iran over the near future, it will be to ensure that this situation doesn’t change by delaying Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability.
This might seem obvious but its easy to forget. There’s so much talk about the Iranian nuclear threat that we sometimes forget that we aren’t clearing out our bomb shelters because Iran’s about to nuke us – we’re clearing them out because the Israeli government wants to ensure Iran won’t be able to nuke us at any point in the future.
We aren’t the only ones to occasionally get confused about this. I once observed a few focus groups in the UK about an Iran attack. Focus groups are fascinating to watch and several groups on the same topic can be very different from each other.
One particular group drove me crazy. The members (A/B professional women) didn’t believe that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. They were sure. But they were also convinced – and scared – that Iran would immediately respond to any attack with nuclear strikes on the West using, presumably, the weapons that they didn’t have. I wanted to scream at their contradictory certainty, but they don’t let you do that from behind the one-way mirror.
So, if we’re not preparing for a nuclear attack, what are we preparing for?
A few things, actually. The most obvious of these is missiles.
The missile threat has been Israel’s biggest continuing homeland security challenge. Since Saddam Hussein decided to launch Scud missiles at Israel to discourage the Allies’ invasion in 1990, Israelis have had to worry about missiles. Missiles have different ranges and some are more destructive than others (roughly speaking, the bigger the range, the more destructive the missile).
More or less all of Israel’s enemies have fired missiles of some type – Saddam and the Scuds, Hezbollah firing Katyusha rockets at towns in the North, Hamas lobbing missiles in the South – first mortars, then Qassams and now imported Grad missiles. Other Palestinian groups like the Popular Resistance Front, Islamic Jihad and various Salafi factions have also fired rockets of various types from Gaza into Israel, and there are rumours that Hamas and other groups have longer-range missiles smuggled in from the Sinai that they’re holding back in case of a future war.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah used longer-range Iranian Fajr missiles that hit areas south of Haifa, and possessed even longer-range Zelzal missiles which could have reached Tel Aviv. These were reportedly destroyed by the IDF on the first day of the war, but all estimates say that Hezbollah today has thousands more missiles than on the eve of the 2006 war. Add to that various Lebanon-based Palestinian groups that sometimes fire off rockets at Northern Israel.
Salafi-Jihadi groups in the Sinai have also occasionally fired Grad missiles at Israel, especially Eilat, though they’ve also missed in the past and hit Aqaba in Jordan instead.
And that’s just the non-state actors, the terrorists and militias. Iran has poured money and resources into its medium- and long-range missile programme. Luckily, Iran has also had some spectacular failures in developing new missiles, but they’ve still got lots that can hit Israel.
Of course, we’ve known all this for years, which means that Israel actually is pretty well-prepared for a missile attack. New buildings all have secure rooms in every apartment. Older buildings have communal bomb shelters. We have sirens in every town and the emergency services do incident drills.
The Muppet booklet includes a handy map which tell you how long you have to get to a bomb shelter after the siren sounds. In Jerusalem, I have a luxurious two minutes. In Ashdod, they get one minute and in Sderot 15 seconds. The residents of the Upper Galilee get no time at all – the map says only “enter the shelter immediately”. But once we’re in the shelters we’re reasonably safe from anything short of a direct hit.
Critically, anti-missile defense has also massively improved. The Patriot anti-missile missiles used during the Gulf War were pretty useless, even if they were psychologically comforting. Nowadays the Iron Dome system, developed jointly between Israel and the USA, can intercept something like 90% of incoming Grad rockets. For longer-range (usually faster) missiles, the Arrow system is showing a lot of promise too.
The assumption is that if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear programme then some of the various threats and actors around us will fire their missiles. With Iran itself and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, this is a pretty fair bet. The same might once have been said of Syria, but Assad has other things on his hands right now. Whether Hamas would support Iran isn’t clear yet, though it’s worth preparing just in case.
None of this explains why I stood in line at the Hadar Mall in Jerusalem to collect my gas mask. Gas masks can be a little bit of help in a fire, but that isn’t why the Israeli Government is giving them out.
No, gas masks are supposed to defend us from chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons are horrific. Using them would almost certainly constitute a War Crime. They’re banned by a number of international conventions and are usually delivered by missiles.
Syria is one of the few states to have never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (Israel has signed it but has never ratified it) and so has been able to produce them for years without UN inspection. It is more or less confirmed that Syria has chemical weapons. One of the biggest fears in the current Syrian civil war is what will happen to them.
The Assad regime claims it won’t use chemical weapons on the Syrian people but might do against “external aggressors”, which is a not-at-all-veiled threat to do a Saddam and attack Israel if the West or the Arab world tries to stop the slaughter. Add to that the risk of Syria’s stockpile getting into the hands of their ally Hezbollah, or one of the more extreme factions of the Syrian opposition capturing them and deciding to show who’s in charge.
It’s also possible that Iran has chemical weapons, but that’s never been the main focus of their weapons development programme and analysts are split on whether we need to worry about it or not.
So a chemical attack could be triggered by an Israeli strike on Iran, but it could also be linked to a bunch of Syria scenarios which have very little to do with us.
A chemical attack remains unlikely. Iran is playing the long game, and has more to gain from playing the ‘victim’ if Israel strikes than using non-conventional weapons in response. Barack Obama has strongly hinted that Syria’s chemical weapons are being closely watched and any attempt to move or use them will be stopped. However, it’s better to prepare for it anyway. A gas mask isn’t a guarantee, but it’s a good start and could save your life if the worst happened.
The problem is that there’s no way to be sure that a regular missile attack isn’t a chemical attack until it lands. So even if there’s a conventional missile attack, we’ll probably be asked to put on out masks just in case.
Israelis are a resilient people. This isn’t the first time the country has been ordered to prepare shelters and collect masks. Often, it proved to be only a precaution. During the Iraq War in 2003, everyone had their secure rooms and gas masks but never used them. Better safe than sorry, though.