Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Protecting Israel's home front

Unlike apartment buildings in New York, London or Melbourne, most homes in Israel come equipped with bomb shelters. Newer dwellings have reinforced concrete "safe rooms," while older buildings rely on communal shelters.

Though they are ubiquitous, Israelis seldom give shelters much thought. Maybe we ought to - given recent statements by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that in any future war, life will not go on as usual. The next conflagration could well "reach the cities and homes of Israeli citizens."

Some, including former defense minister Moshe Arens, argue that such talk moves Israel perilously close to accepting the proposition that nothing can be done to protect the home front. In an interview with the Post, he decried what he sees as the abandonment of Israel's long-standing determination to make the protection of its civilian population the highest imperative.

THE HOME front first came under assault in the 1948 War of Independence, when the Egyptian air force bombed Tel Aviv. Once the IAF came into its own, the skies above were secured and the main threat facing civilians stemmed from terrorism.

Israeli strategists emphasized engaging the enemy on its territory. But, unfortunately, as the instruments of war available to our foes became more varied, shielding the home front wasn't always possible.

In the 1981 Gulf War, 39 crude (in terms of accuracy) SCUD missiles launched by Saddam Hussein's Iraq exploded in metropolitan Tel Aviv, causing damage but relatively little loss of life.

In May 1982 Palestinian terrorists, who then reigned supreme in south Lebanon, unleashed a barrage of 100 Katyushas on northern Galilee. Then, on June 3, Israel's ambassador in Britain, Shlomo Argov, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt. Israel responded to these Palestinian provocations by launching Operation Peace for Galilee, whose immediate goal was to remove the rocket threat.

On average, two IDF soldiers lost their lives each month in the buffer zone Israel subsequently established in south Lebanon to protect the home front. Yet Israel's new enemy, Hizbullah, nevertheless managed - in April 1996 for example - to send rockets our way. While Israel's tough retaliation helped deliver a period of relative quiet to the civilian population, its stationing of troops on Lebanese soil proved unpopular. It was also a militarily dubious approach, prime minister Ehud Barak claimed.

Barak's abrupt pullout from Lebanon in 2000 allowed Hizbullah to set up shop flush against the border with Israel.

During the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006, Hizbullah's onslaught of 4,000 rockets and mortars reached practically as far south as Netanya, forcing a third of the population into shelters. Forty-three citizens were killed, including seven children. Hundreds were wounded.

In the south, meanwhile, following Israel's 1994 post-Oslo withdrawal from Gaza's Palestinian population centers, terrorists launched thousands of rockets and mortars against Israeli civilians. The situation deteriorated further after disengagement in 2005, when all Israeli citizens and soldiers pulled out of Gaza entirely.

The temporary cease-fire now in place, episodically violated by the Palestinians, is likely to end in grief.

The threats facing Israel's population from enemy projectiles - short- and long-range - are daunting: Iran has recently provided Hizbullah with missiles capable of hitting just about every part of Israel, reports say.

The strategic threats emanating from the arsenals of Iran and Syria, and the more tactical menace posed by Hizbullah and Hamas, demand individual assessment and appropriate counter-measures.

AS RECENTLY enunciated by Olmert, Israel's war strategy is "to bring about a quick victory at minimum cost" without conquering enemy territory yet without showing the kind of restraint the IDF manifested in Lebanon.

For Arens, the failure to conquer and hold enemy territory to put the guns out of range is anathema. He would employ ground action to promptly "eliminate" the "insufferable" threat of rockets in Gaza. He'd do the same with regard to short-range Hizbullah rockets, employing the IAF to handle their longer-range weaponry.

Jews did not return to Zion to sit in shelters, he says.

We urge current policymakers - whatever their chosen strategy - to discard any approach that embraces the irresponsible proposition that Israel's population cannot be protected. The mistakes of the Second Lebanon War must not be repeated, on any front.

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