'We are preparing for the worst'

Israel's Minister of Homefront Defense Major General (Ret.) Matan Vilnai, has taken six years to deal with the lessons of the Second Lebanon War. 'The homefront has become like any other front. Its resilience will determine success in the next war,' he says

"Stop referring to the Second Lebanon War as a 'war.' The last real war in the region was the Yom Kippur War, in 1973. Since then, there have only been operations of limited scope, and the 'Second Lebanon' was definitely just an operation. At its apex, only 80,000 reservists were recruited; There was only fire from the Golani junction line and northwards. It isn't even similar to the scope of fire expected in the next conflict."

The speaker: Major General (Ret.) Matan Vilnai, Israel's Minister of Homefront Defense. The circumstances: a shared interview for IsraelDefense and the journal of the IDF's Veterans Association, "Tzevet." The interview was held at Vilnai's office, several weeks prior to the conclusion of his term as minister and the start of his new position as Israel's next ambassador to China.

What is the actual scenario that the IDF and homefront elements are preparing for, in case of a war that includes Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas?"
The threat reference discusses hundreds of missiles per day, launched at Israel's homefront during 21 to 30 days of warfare. It discusses hundreds of homefront fatalities. I believe that the threat reference is being somewhat downplayed. It is true that 44 surface-to-surface missiles were launched towards Israel over the course of the First Gulf War, which only caused one fatality. However, a lone missile in Saudi Arabia back then resulted in 24 US Army fatalities. As such, the estimates are hundreds of casualties, with some of the scenarios mentioning 500 fatalities.

"Will most of the missiles launched at Israel be Grad rockets with a 7 kg warhead, or long-range missiles with warheads of several hundreds of kilograms?
"The larger portion will be Grad rockets, and the smaller portion will be missiles with heavy warheads, which may cause most of the damage. We are preparing for casualties and damage to the Israeli economy: primarily strategic facilities such as gas-drilling installations at sea. The weapon systems can hit production platforms. Random damage can also affect electric facilities, resulting in disruptions to the power grid in certain areas, or even throughout the country."

Civilian Front

Matan Vilnai, a Jerusalem resident since birth, spent most of his junior IDF command duties in Paratrooper Brigade operations and Sayeret Matkal. Prior to retiring to civilian life and entering Israeli politics, he served in senior IDF positions as head of the Manpower Branch, head of Southern Command, and deputy chief of staff.

In early 2007, six months after the Second Lebanon War, Vilnai was appointed deputy to Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. It was in this position that he dealt with the establishment of the National Emergency Authority. The need for such an authority was one of the chief lessons learned from the Israeli State Comptroller's report about the conduct of the Israeli homefront in the summer of 2006. Vilnai was the first to head the Homefront Defense Ministry that was established in January 2011.

"The civilian front accompanied Israel since its first days as a state," Vilnai says while looking back. "Few remember this, but a third of the casualties in the War of Independence were sustained in the homefront. After the war, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, established the Haga (civilian defense) and initiated the Civil Defense Law, which regulated various issues pertaining to the handling of the homefront.

For decades later, thanks to the considerable effectiveness of the IDF, wars were only fought on the front, and the Israeli populace was living splendidly. This will no longer be the case. In 1991, the First Gulf War showed us that the war was returning to the homefront. Missiles were fired at the homefront with no combat taking place on our front. The Coalition forces were the only ones that fought in Iraq.

"Israel's Homefront Command was established as a result of that war. In fact, Moshe Arens, then Minister of Defense, essentially forced the military to establish it. In the years since, there have been discussions on how the command would be transferred from the IDF to the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It's a good thing that this didn't happen, as this ministry is not prepared to handle such a complex issue."

"Throughout the years, despite understanding the homefront's importance and the increased attacks towards it during various conflicts, budgets allocated to the issue were insufficient. For example, the budget for the Economic Bureau for Emergencies is roughly the same as the Ministry of Defense's budget for refreshment expenses – barely enough to produce a few brochures per year, certainly not enough for any actual activity. This bureau was not even activated during the Second Lebanon War. At the time, I was a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and I remember the bureau personnel telling me that they were waiting to receive instructions.

"Over the years, there have been several moments of brilliance, such as the regulation enacted after the First Gulf War that called for the construction of protected rooms in every new apartment or house, which considerably helps us today. However, in general, various entities responsible for handling the homefront have been without sufficient funding, and the coordination between the various entities has been practically nonexistent.

"After the so-called 'Second Lebanon War,' the State Comptroller issued a harsh report about the homefront, which I keep on my desk as a tool. As far as I'm concerned, the motto of the report is that hundreds of bodies are operating in the homefront that do not understand one another. Furthermore, they lack coordination to the point that it could result in a situation where the Israeli government would not be able to carry out its decisions.

"As a result of this severe report, we decided to establish the NEA as the body that would deal with coordination. It was also decided that it should be established within the Ministry of Defense. This was despite the fact that there were those who thought that establishing it within the Ministry of Public Security would be the right thing to do. Until this day, five years after its establishment, only a few understand what we are really doing.

"In fact, we established the NEA in six months - including its framework and its fundamental principles. The first rule is that every entity responsible for a certain issue in peace time will also be responsible for it in an emergency, which is very important. The second is that the local authority will be our work tool. There were those that proposed that we appoint military commanders to take command of the various cities in an emergency, but we disqualified the idea. The mayors are responsible for preparing their cities, and they are doing an excellent job, both those among them who were military persons, as well as those with no military background. There are 265 local authorities in Israel, and to this day, all of them are in an entirely different place with regards to their emergency situation readiness compared to the situation in the summer of 2006."

The Resilience Factor

Minister Matan Vilnai refers to the civilian front as if it were any other combat front. "The only difference is that in the case of the homefront, we cannot train everyone as we do in the military. However, we are instructing all the authorities entrusted with caring for the homefront according to an organized multi-year plan.

Not all the gaps have been closed, and the budget needs to be completed appropriately in order to close a 60-year gap. New legislation needs to be concluded in this field to replace the laws initiated by Ben Gurion in 1951. However, we are working within a multi-year framework with the goal of strengthening the local government, which will then ensure protection.

"Over the past five years, we have been establishing the civilian front on a daily basis. We are building a nation-wide network of sorts, which will be operated in either the south, north, center or throughout the country if the need were to arise. In the 2011 Carmel Fire, the local authorities operated well, despite the failures that exposed the neglect of the firefighting layout, evacuating civilians, and opening communication situation rooms. The authorities also functioned well during the rocket attacks of the past few months in the south. We know for certain that the population's resilience will play a key part in the success of the next war. This sector carries out many activities in cooperation with the local authorities to strengthen the homefront. Programs intended to strengthen its resilience are presently being carried out in no less than 18 central cities across the country, and will be relevant for nearly the entire population within a few years."

The June 2012 State Comptroller's report about last year's Carmel fire, in which 44 prison service, firefighter, and police cadets died, presents a harsh picture – one from which it seems that the absence of coordination still persists.

"The Carmel fire was a terrible disaster on a national level, and everything should have been done to avoid it. However, it doesn't present the true picture. Since this country likes to punish those in charge and the media is usually very superficial, the core issue is not dealt with. The disaster was a result of the neglect to the firefighter layout and an operational mistake that resulted in a bus entering the center of the fire, which should have been investigated. The State Comptroller tried to present new norms of responsibility and authority, but this was not the place."

Let's talk about the shelters. You are describing a serious threat to the homefront, yet there are still dozens of thousands of people without shelters in threatened cities such as Tel Aviv. Do they have somewhere to go to in case of an attack?

"Yes, they do. Anyone who listens to the instructions of the Homefront Command will be considerably protected. Four thousand missiles were launched towards Israel during the Second Lebanon War, a quarter of which fell in unpopulated areas. None of the 44 civilians killed in the homefront were inside a structure during the fatal missile impact.

"I checked once and discovered that all fatalities in Israel's homefront since the Second Lebanon War could have been avoided were the instructions of the Homefront Command carried out properly. In the absence of shelters, the instructions are to run to a space in the heart of a building, such as a staircase shaft, preferably on the first floor. These instructions are meant to prevent mass casualties in the event of an attack. We instruct the population to head to the safest place they can reach in exercises, even if there is no shelter."

"By the way, we are investing in protecting old houses in the areas that face the largest threat. We have invested 2 billion NIS in protecting homes within the range of up to 4.5 km around the Gaza Strip, and I am currently demanding that the range be extended to 7 km."

How do you explain that only 60% of the population has proper CBRN kits?
"We distributed kits to 60% of the population, and we made sure that every family reaching us will have appropriate kits for both parents and children. Filling the gap would require an additional 1.5 billion NIS. Obtaining this sum is difficult in the current reality, but we are working on it."

Isn't the absence of sufficient CBRN kits for everyone classic material for a future investigative committee?
"Then let them establish an investigative committee. Experience tells us that chemical or biological weapons have not been used against a populace. Still, we must be prepared. Should such weapons be used, only a very small minority will be at risk, if people follow the instructions."

Does the cyber field pose a threat to the homefront?
"Israel is constantly under cyber-attacks. There is a regular, daily struggle taking place under the surface, and cyber represents an integral part of it. Israel established the National Cyber Bureau for cyber defense, and the Shabak has also established a national security authority, intended to serve as a response to this threat."

Egypt Revolution

When Matan Vilnai served as the Head of Southern Command in the 1990s, no one could have imagined a scenario involving the collapse of the peace agreement with Egypt. However, this possibility is now considered realistic within a range of several years.

"A historic revolution occurred in Egypt, but we must notice that the whole Middle East is undergoing the largest change since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. This is more than just the events in Egypt. It is possible that the change could turn out to be for the best in the long run, and will result in different regimes for the Arab populaces around us. However, in the short run, which is more or less the framework of all our lives, the process is a terrible one, as radical Islam such as in Egypt will dominate the area. One does not have to go back as far as the 1990s – if we were to go back just two years, no one would have believed that Muhammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood would be president of Egypt."

Let's return to the Iranian threat. If Israel and the US are serious about the threat of attacking the Iranian nuclear program, why are there no apparent urgent preparations on the Israeli homefront? Do you trust the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense to make the right call concerning an attack on Iran?
"This is not even a legitimate question, since all the people made their way to governance via democratic measures, after careful examination. In any case, I have known those leading the government for 30 and even 50 years, and I believe that they are very worthy individuals."

The full interview was featured in Issue 9 of IsraelDefense