Operation Protective Edge was the fourth in a series of severe military confrontations the Israeli civilian front experienced in the last eight years, after the Second Lebanon War (July-August 2006), Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip (December 2008 – January 2009) and Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip (November 2012). In all four operations, in addition to the military front where IDF elements were employed in combined arms moves against the opponents, the civilian front was challenged and operated too, mainly by the steep-trajectory threat that was intended to disrupt the day-to-day life of the civilian population and inflict casualties and damage to property.
Admittedly, it may still be premature to conclude the last round and draw system-wide lessons from it with regard to the functioning and conduct of the Israeli home front. At the same time, it is already possible to point out a number of primary issues that should be reexamined in depth through the perspective of time and provided with revised concepts.
Hamas had prepared itself over the last few years for attacking civilian objectives inside Israeli territory using two concurrent capabilities. The first and primary capability is the employment of its massive arsenal of largely home-made rockets (with different rockets possessing different range specifications), which had been intended mainly to create a long-term nuisance and disturbance effect. In the face of the innovative Israeli solution in the form of the continuous operational function of nine Iron Dome batteries, the essentially statistic offensive arsenal of Hamas produced a relatively limited effect.
The other capability – the offensive subterranean tunnels – did generate a widespread public resonance in Israel and produced a dimension of personal fear among the inhabitants of the Israeli settlements around the Gaza Strip, but it was neutralized by the offensive and defensive operations of the IDF and did not succeed in physically harming the inhabitants of the area. Contrary to these failures of Hamas, it was its defensive layout, of all things, that proved its effectiveness as far as they were concerned, mainly as it demonstrated long-term operational endurance and a relatively high degree of effectiveness in hitting the IDF troopers.
The Functioning of the Israeli Population
Opposite this limited threat severity and despite the fact that this time the settlements of the central region were subjected to the threat of Hamas rockets, the Israeli public reacted well. Generally, the public obeyed the directives of IDF Home Front Command, kept its non-vital activities to a reasonable minimum and primarily, at the day-to-day level, returned to normal functioning immediately after the alerts – even when those alerts were frequent.
On the other hand, the functioning of the population in the south, mainly in the Israeli settlements around the Gaza Strip, was different and consistent with the much higher severity of the threat imposed on this population. The widespread abandonment by local inhabitants to temporary shelters in the northern part of the country was particularly prominent, even before the offensive subterranean tunnel threat had become known. In the societal resilience test, most of the inhabitants of the southern region, including those living in the settlements around the Gaza Strip, scored fairly high marks as most of them returned to their homes immediately after the ceasefire option had become tangible, even if some of them expressed their anguish and perfectly justified expectation of public support and extensive and long-term government assistance that would guarantee their personal safety and their ability to prosper and resume their day-to-day life.
This time around, the civil defense systems faced a relatively easy trial which enabled IDF Home Front Command, the municipal authorities and the other organizations to function adequately. The civil defense operations were coordinated primarily by IDF Home Front Command, whose supremacy was demonstrated practically although it was not yet recognized officially pursuant to the demobilization of the Home Front Defense Ministry. In this respect, the system did not emit any unnecessary “friction noises” this time, even if the issue of system settlement that will determine which organizations would be responsible for preparing the systems for emergency and for operating them in an emergency has not been resolved yet. The constitutional issue concerning the declaration of a state of war, or national emergency, or irregular situation in the rear area, surfaced only marginally, mainly owing to the financial implications associated with the payment of compensations for damage to substantial sectors among the population.
The last round of hostilities has once again raised onto the public agenda the question of what the protection concept of the State of Israel should be. So far, despite various statements by political leaders to the contrary, the ruling attributed to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to which “We will not protect ourselves to death” is still valid, mainly for budget-related considerations. Apparently, the new reality renders the need for public shelters obsolete, to some extent – but not the shelters in the facilities of the education system; it has created a need for a widespread deployment of mobile shelters, with the emphasis on unprotected residential areas like the Bedouin settlements in the southern region, and calls for a revised set of preparations opposite the mortar fire, mainly in border settlements. One related question – a difficult reminder for which was provided by the rocket that dropped close to Ben-Gurion Airport and led to a two-day halting of air traffic – pertains to the protection of vital national infrastructures that could serve as attractive targets for the opponent’s missile arsenal in the future.
Some people regarded Operation Protective Edge as a nation-wide training exercise for the Israeli home front (instead of the exercise postponed a few months ago, owing to budget-related considerations). Admittedly, the operation improved the preparedness of the civil defense systems and can serve as a basis for future lessons. It is too early to know whether Hamas will be able to upgrade its steep trajectory capabilities to the same standard as those of Hezbollah, but the right thing to do will be to prepare for such an upgrade with regard to their offensive capabilities as well.
In the field of active defense, the axiom according to which the Iron Dome Order of Battle should be expanded has already become a cliché, but it must be addressed seriously and promptly. In order for the State of Israel to be able to provide appropriate protection to population concentrations, to critical infrastructures and to the military power centers, the Iron Dome Order of Battle should be doubled. The medium-range David’s Sling system should become operational next year, but the staggering cost of this system will not obviate the central position of the Iron Dome system. So far, the Americans have financed most of the development and manufacture of those systems. Israel may have to consider an investment of its own in the advancement of this vital issue.
Repeated delays, both political and bureaucratic, have thus far prevented the required settlement associated with the organizing of the civil front at the national and local levels. Such settlement should clearly determine, among other things, the responsibility and authority boundaries of the various organs dealing with the rear area (home front) during a defense emergency or in emergencies following natural disasters. Pursuant to the recent operation, implementing said settlement, determining its elements and backing it by legislation have become even more acute requirements.
Israeli society has demonstrated a high level of resilience during the last crisis, as measured by its prompt recovery and return to a normal routine, on the personal and national levels. The trial of the Israeli settlements around the Gaza Strip has not ended yet and necessitates substantial state-sponsored input. Additionally, it is still early to know how the national economy will digest the interruption at the macro-economic level, and how long it will take for the growth elements within the economy to overcome the natural setback experienced during the operation. Economic recovery, while providing adequate solutions to the defense and civilian needs that arose owing to the operation, is a primary element of the national resilience, which stands at the top of the elements of Israel’s strategic response vis-à-vis its enemies.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Meir Elran is the Head of the Program on Homeland Security at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)