Friday, February 3, 2012

What will happen in Israel if there is an attack on Iran this spring?

I tried to blog on this yesterday, but Blogger ate my post. The Forward today has an editorial, The Days After, on the question of what will happen after (if) Israel or the US attack Iran. This is a question which I think has been addressed far too little in the public debate. The discussion has mostly been about whether Iran is actually on its way to make nuclear weapons, and if so, how far along it is, and then whether a strike on Iran would actually much of an effect on their nuclear program. I haven't seen much discussion of what might be the consequences for Israel of such an attack.

David Ignatius wrote yesterday in the Washington Post that he was told by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that he thinks that Israel will attack Iran in April, May, or June of this year. Panetta did not deny the report.

And yesterday, at the Herzliya Conference, various Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, talked about how the time is growing short to stop the Iranian nuclear program, especially because Iran will soon be moving critical components of the program into mountain bunkers, making them almost impossible to attack successfully. (There was a recent article in Haaretz that admitted that the US military doesn't have bombs that would successfully destroy all of the underground bunkers the Iranians are using).

(For a counter to all of the doom and gloom about a possible Israeli strike on Iran, see an article in today's Los Angeles Times - Will Israel Attack Iran? It's been asked before. The article goes back to August, 2004 - "Will Sharon Attack Iran?")

So what would happen in Israel if it attacked Iran? Chuck Freilich of the Los Angeles Times writes:
Moreover, according to Israeli estimates, Iran has hundreds of Shahab missiles capable of striking Israel. And along with Syria, Iran has provided Hezbollah with an almost unfathomable arsenal of more than 50,000 rockets, designed precisely for this scenario, which can blanket all of Israel from Lebanon.

There is no reason to believe that Hezbollah will not use this arsenal. During the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel, about one-third of its 13,000-missile arsenal at the time; if it were to employ a similar ratio today — and it could be far larger — the results would cause a level of destruction Israel has never before experienced. Hamas too has a large rocket arsenal in waiting, but "just" thousands.
So if Israel attacked Iran, there would be extensive Iranian retaliation, in the form of missiles directly sent from Iran itself, a vast barrage of missiles from Lebanon, and a smaller one from Gaza. This could lead to many Israeli dead and injured, and a lot of property damage.

How seriously are Israeli leaders taking this? When they talk about the possibility of a war with Iran, they mention how Israel has been preparing for possible Iranian retaliation by conducting drills, improving bomb shelters, and distributing gas masks. Well, there is no bomb shelter in my apartment building - the closest one is across the street, and it's been turned into a sports club. A good friend of mine lives in this building, and she knows nothing of any efforts to turn the club back into a bomb shelter.

Last year, when I was here in the summer, there was a nationwide drill, Turning Point 5, designed among other things to test people's responses to the news of an incoming missile attack. (I wrote about it here). At the time when the sirens went off at 11:00 a.m. I was at the National Library in Jerusalem - which I might point out is a few minutes walk away from the Knesset, the Prime Minister's Office, the Bank of Israel, the Foreign Ministry, and other government ministries - thus a prime target. All of us in the reading rooms went down to the basement floor, as we had been told, and stood around. Apparently in the event of an actual attack we would have been taken into the stacks, which is where the bomb shelter for the building is. No one around me was taking the drill particularly seriously.

When I got back home in the evening I told my friend about it and asked her what she did during the drill. I believe she was home at the time, and she didn't do anything - as she said, she couldn't be bothered. And if she had wanted to do something, what should she have done? Well, go shelter in the stairwell of the building. I don't really understand how that could protect people if the building was hit by a missile.

And as for gas masks, in the case of chemical warheads? Well, a recent article in the Israeli press reported that due to a shortage, about half the Israeli population will not be receiving gas masks. They've been distributed in the last couple of years, but only 400,000 kits remain - and they will be distributed in the next couple of months. Why the Home Front Command only decided to produce 50% of the gas masks intended to protect to the population, only they know.

So are Israeli leaders really thinking about what could happen in Israel this year if the airforce strikes Iranian nuclear sites? Not what could happen in a few years if Iran decides to go ahead and create a nuclear weapon, but this year. Perhaps I'm too fixated on the short term consequences, and should worry more about Iran actually getting the bomb. But being in Israel, and facing the question of what will happen if Israel attacks Iran while I'm here, has concentrated my mind on the immediate question, not the farther off one.

If Israel does in fact attack Iran this spring, they're not going to issue a warning or a declaration of war beforehand, to let the Israeli population know that it's time to seek out the nearest bomb shelter (or to warn the Iranians) It will happen suddenly, without any warning - and presumably the counter-attack would happen pretty quickly also. There will a period of some time before effective protection against the Iranian/Hezbollah missiles will be in place, when many Israelis could die, or be injured. During the 2006 Lebanon War, it was clear that Israel was not prepared for such a large barrage of missiles from Lebanon, and there was much property damage, and hundreds of thousands people fled the north of Israel and went to stay with friends and relatives further south. There weren't enough shelters, or the shelters were filthy and lacked supplies. I understand that since then there has been a lot of work to refurbish shelters and prepare the population, but has there been enough?

And then there's the personal question - how would I react if Israel were attacked? Should I leave immediately? Or stay here with my friends? How much risk would there be for people living in Jerusalem? In the 1991 Gulf War, Jerusalem was not hit by Scud missiles from Iraq. In the 2006 Lebanon War, the Hezbollah missiles could not reach as far south as Jerusalem. Hamas or Islamic Jihad missiles from Gaza do not have a long enough range to hit Jerusalem. One presumption has been that Arab-Muslim attacks would not be aimed at Jerusalem, because of the religious importance of the city for Muslims and the presence of a large Palestinian population in the city. Does this still hold true?

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