It’s Israel’s civil defense that’s disproportionate, not the IDF’s tactics.
Every time Hamas and Islamic Jihad fire rockets at Israeli towns, the news is full of footage the Iron Dome system intercepting the incoming bombs, experts giving their analysis, shots of the damage caused and reports from hospitals about the status of the wounded.
Since 2006, when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, there have been several major conflagarations, including IDF operations Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge along with numerous lower intensity conflicts. In those flareups, Hamas and other terror groups fired thousands of rockets at Israel and the IDF retaliated with targeted strikes on terror targets. In the largest IDF operations of 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, Israel also sent ground forces into the Strip.
Inevitably, comparisons are made by the foreign media between the casualties on the two sides, but usually without any context or explanation. Far too often, news editors seize on one of the overly misused buzzwords, disproportionate.
It takes some explaining to understand why there is often a disproportionate number of casualties. But due to limited air time and unforgiving word counts, those reasons are generally not given. The public does not understand why Israel has what appears to be a disproportionately small number of casualties.
The Threat to Israel’s Population
Since the first Hamas rocket attack in 2001, Israel has been hit by some 20,000 rockets and mortar bombs fired from Gaza. The vast majority are aimed at civilian targets and have killed more than 50 people, wounded hundreds and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.
Even as Gaza’s economy festered, Hamas and Islamic Jihad invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop rockets that can reach as far as Haifa, threatening more than six million Israelis.
The continuous rocket fire on population centers forced Israel to develop strategies for dealing with the attacks. The results have shown an impressive reduction in civilian casualties despite the barrages.
Civil Defense Procedures
Israeli government and defense officials always understood the importance of civil defense; bomb shelters have been in most areas since 1948. However, Hamas’ use of short-range rockets required new measures.
Civil defense authorities realized that the prime factor in avoiding casualties is the behavior of the civilian population, whom they educate and train to react to rocket attacks.
The main civil defense measures are:
- Civilians are instructed to react immediately to air raid sirens and seek shelter. Citizens know to run to bomb shelters, reinforced rooms, stairwells, or when caught outdoors, to lie down and protect themselves. Citizens in all towns and cities under attack are instructed about and know the maximum time they have to seek shelter when the alarms sound: from 15-90 seconds only.
- In heavily attacked areas like Sderot, where residents have only 15 seconds or less warning time, playgrounds and bus stops have been converted to also serve as reinforced concrete bomb shelters.
- Schools and hospitals close to the Gaza border have been covered with reinforced concrete to protect students and staff from rocket attacks during the day.
- When Gaza rocket barrages are especially intense, civil defense officials order residents living within seven km of Gaza to stay in bomb shelters. All kindergartens, schools and universities in a 40-km range remain closed and those civilians are told to remain near shelters.
- Israel holds annual week-long national civil defense drills involving schools, work places, homes, civil services and hospitals to train citizens how to act during attacks. And every year, schools hold special drills simulating rocket attacks and earthquakes.
In dozens of instances, homes where rockets exploded were evacuated only seconds beforehand with residents taking shelter.
For example, in October, 2018 a mother in Beersheba woke to the sound of warning sirens at 3:40 A.M. She had only 60 seconds to wake her three children and make it to shelter. Just as they closed the door of their safe-room, a rocket destroyed their house, yet they emerged unharmed.
Following three days of rocket attacks in November, 2019, the IDF’s Homefront Command issued a statement praising the civilian population. “You were attentive to the instructions, you followed our guidelines and took charge of your personal safety,” the statement said.
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Along with the above, Israel’s defensive measures include three other facets: an advanced early warning system, the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system and new military tactics that accurately target military targets.
The Red Alert Warning System
This alert system was first deployed in Sderot in 2004, giving residents up to 15 seconds to find shelter before the rockets explode. Locals are now so attuned to the system, they start running when they hear the ‘click’ as the system’s loudspeakers are turned on a split second before a recorded voice announces “Red Alert – Red Alert.”
The national early warning system was expanded and finalized in 2012. The “Color Red” system is used in close proximity to Gaza, while traditional air raid sirens are used elsewhere.
The system is not only connected to national television and radio broadcasts to automatically announce an alert and the location(s) under attack, but extends to the internet and telephones. The country is now divided into 1,700 zones so that alerts are only sounded in areas where rocket strikes are imminent.
To defend against short range anti-personnel artillery rockets Israel developed a new rocket-defense system known as the “Iron Dome.” The system uses advanced radar to track incoming rockets and determine their impact point. It triggers the Red Alert system for the communities being targeted.
Within seconds, Iron Dome launches guided missiles to intercept the incoming rockets. However, if Iron Dome calculates that the attacking rockets will land in open areas it does not fire an intercepting missile.
The ground-breaking defense system counters short range rockets and 155 mm artillery shell threats. The system tries to detonate the target warhead over a neutral area, therefore reducing collateral damage to urban areas.
The Iron Dome system has successfully intercepted hundreds of rockets that targeted Israeli cities with a reported intercept success rate of over 90%.
This system is actually one part of Israel’s three-tiered missile defense system. While Iron Dome defends against short-range rockets, David’s Sling (also known as Magic Wand) defends against medium range missiles with a range of 40-300 km. The Arrow is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles.
Grasping what’s behind the “disproportionate” casualties also means understanding why the Palestinian numbers are larger.
While the Palestinian Authority has a modest budget for the West Bank’s civil defense, Hamas spends nothing. Gaza has no bomb shelters or early warning system, but that’s not due to a lack of money or resources. One typical Hamas terror tunnel costs an estimated $3-10 million. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the IDF uncovered 18 tunnels built with an estimated 800,000 tons of concrete. Journalist Liel Leibovitz pointed out:
Erecting Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, required 110,000 tons of concrete. Hamas, then, could’ve treated itself to seven such monstrosities and still had a few tens of thousands of tons to spare. If it wanted to build kindergartens equipped with bomb shelters, like Israel has built for the besieged citizens of Sderot, for example—after all, noted military strategists like Jon Stewart have spent last week proclaiming that Gaza’s citizens had nowhere to hide from Israel’s artillery—Hamas could have used its leftovers to whip up about two that were each as big as Giants Stadium. And that’s just 18 tunnels. Egypt, on its end, recently claimed to have destroyed an additional 1,370. That’s a lot of concrete.
Moreover, there is significant documentation of Hamas firing rockets from civilian areas and storing weapons inside hospitals, mosques and schools. Rather than protect civilians, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Hamas turned schools “into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children.”
The IDF does it what it can to minimize Palestinian casualties. With 24/7 aerial surveillance, rocket-launching squads are identified and attacked directly using precision munitions rather than field artillery. Targeted strikes are designed to hit only combatants and minimize the risk to nearby civilians.
Israeli airstrikes are often preceded by automated phone calls, text messages or dropped leaflets warning Palestinians to get out of harm’s way. Another unique tactic adopted by the IDF is “roof-knocking.” Before striking a building, a pilot drops a loud non-lethal bomb to give Palestinian civilians prior warning. In some instances. strikes were aborted over the presence of civilians.
While these warnings have saved many Palestinian lives, Hamas calls them psychological ploys and frequently urges Palestinians to disregard them. And in some instances, the warnings actually prompted Palestinians to go up to the roofs of targeted buildings to act as human shields.
If Palestinian casualties in the crowded Gaza Strip are disproportionate, is it any wonder why?
Featured image: Sderot playground via YouTube/aquafountain;
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