HERZLIYA, ISRAEL — At midday May 27, piercing sirens sent pupils here and in schools throughout the country scrambling for shelter in a drill designed to test emergency responses to the intensifying threat of chemically armed rockets and missiles.
The noontime drill was part of Israel’s annual Turning Point exercise — conducted jointly by military and civilian authorities — aimed at testing civilian preparedness and first-response procedures at the national and local levels.
This year’s three-day drill took place here amid high anxiety over a possible renewed war in the north, just three weeks after air attacks in Syria attributed to Israel and a day after Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threatened to raze Israeli cities in response to the Israeli-ascribed strikes.
While the drill focused on the functioning of government agencies and critical infrastructure in the face of chemical missile attacks, a public information campaign targeted schoolchildren and the public at large with detailed threat assessments of conventional and unconventional threats looming beyond the borders.
According to the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command, the government is “ready to defend against hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles.”
The command’s website — www.oref.org.il — provides detailed size, performance and range characteristics of enemy threats. It also publishes an extensive listing of chemical weapons and nerve agents in Syrian and neighboring arsenals, along with dispersal methods and their respective physical effects via ingestion or other means of exposure.
In a country that has absorbed more than 6,000 hits from rockets or missiles in less than a decade, and whose entire 8 million or so population now finds itself within impact range, threat awareness starts at an increasingly early age.
Every elementary school pupil is taught exactly how much time is needed to reach shelters once the so-called Color Red alarm is sounded.
In this relatively affluent beach town north of Tel Aviv, pupils have the luxury of two full minutes to reach underground shelters or designated safe areas from conventional or chemical attack. That’s a 30-second advantage over schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, a minute more than those in Haifa or Beersheba, and a world away from the 15 to 30 seconds before attacks in areas near Israel’s northern and southern borders.
As a reminder, the Home Front Command recently came out with a new app, advertised through Facebook, that allows schoolchildren to remember warning time through jingles tailor-made according to their living conditions — high-rise building with basement shelter, private home with air-filtered safe room, etc. — and distance from the border.
Even preschoolers are taught — courtesy of Home Front Command’s cartoon-illustrated storybook and accompanying dictionary — to distinguish between “pretty stupid” Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip from the Grads, Fajrs and other heavier caliber, longer-range threats.
“Qassam is a small rocket that is pretty stupid, no offense. Our missiles are much more advanced,” Home Front Command reassures Israeli youth.
Last week’s Turning Point drill was the seventh conducted since the 2006 Lebanon war, when Israel proved woefully ill-prepared during more than a month of salvo attacks from Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
Each year, scenarios designed for the annual exercise have become more extreme, focusing on potential casualties, destruction and disruption in the greater Tel Aviv area and other cities in the center of the country.
“We once asked if the enemy would dare fire missiles on Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Haifa,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Home Front minister, told reporters prior to the drill.
“Now these questions are no longer relevant,” he said. “The answer is clear. The question now is, when will they fire on population centers? It can happen tonight, or next week.” ■