Mideast Briefing: Threats to the Home Front

Mideast Briefing: Threats to the Home Front

May 26, 2010

This week Israel plays a game. Sixty-eight municipalities are joining military and civilian agencies for a massive exercise, a "war game" designed to train the Israeli home front to respond effectively to an attack by hundreds of missiles landing across the country. Israel recently held a conventional military exercise in the North, but this Home Front exercise manifests a strategic shift in the conflict.

That shift is also reflected in other actions taken by the government that address the civilian population. The IDF recently renewed the distribution of gas-mask kits. The government advertises that so-called "protected spaces" need to be kept ready for service as bomb shelters. For the last two decades Israeli homes have been built with a specially reinforced room, a "protected space." The government also has a program to add such rooms to existing buildings, providing an added benefit – structural reinforcement against earthquake damage (another Israeli civil defense headache).

One Israeli planner recently went so far as to suggest to me: "the decisive front in the next war will be the home front." Another, in a public talk, noted that no enemy state thinks seriously of defeating Israel by taking on its air force in dogfights or defeating its armor in World-War-Two style warfare. Rather, he suggested that their conventional forces now have the limited aim of holding ground, while missiles and rockets are used as terror weapons to assault civilian populations in the Israeli rear.

The thinking of Iran/Syria/Hezbollah strategists is presumably that such attacks might have decisive military value. They disrupt normal life, economic activity and morale. And alongside the essentially civilian targeting of the effort, sometimes you get lucky and inflict damage on legitimate military targets. Finally -- and this was the core of Palestinian strategic thinking in the militarized Second Intifada -- terror assaults frighten civilians, whose state of anxiety is expected to break morale and cause them to turn against their government, dooming the Israeli war effort.

This is a flawed concept, and not only when applied to Israel. One of the lessons of the Second World War's massive aerial bombing of cities was that attacks on the civilian population tend to strengthen its morale, pulling people together. In Britain, for example, industrial production actually rose under the "blitz." Civilian morale never broke. The Second Intifada provides another illustration closer to home. That was a war where the Israeli heroes were the ordinary people, bus-drivers, ambulance medics, homemakers, who bravely and without drama went about their everyday business despite the threat. Assaulting the Israeli Home Front is likely to fail despite its destructive capacities, precisely because it attacks Israel where society has been strongest -- at the point where it pulls together in the face of a common threat.

One assumes that military planners of the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah bloc know this, and that they also are aware of the ongoing advantage enjoyed by Israel in any foreseeable conventional war. If so, they probably see their attack-the-Home-Front-strategy as the best bad hand they have to play. The Iran/Syria/Hezbollah bloc invests considerable money and effort, not to say propagandistic bravado, with Hezbollah playing the role of front man. Hezbollah is most likely to engage violently with Israel first, and is accordingly being armed by the other two. As Israel's Brigadier Yossi Baidatz, head of research for Military Intelligence, publicly suggested: "Weapons are transferred to Hezbollah on a regular basis … by the Syrian and Iranian regimes … it should not be called smuggling of arms to Lebanon -- it is organized and official transfer."

Hezbollah now has the capacity and range to hit anywhere within Israel more accurately than ever before. According to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hezbollah controls "far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world." The transfer of the Syrian-manufactured M600 missile garnered unusual headlines. Built on an Iranian design and provided to Hezbollah, it has a 500-kilogram warhead, a range of 250 kilometers and a guidance system giving it unprecedented accuracy. President Shimon Peres himself publicly confirmed the presence of the M600 in Hezbollah's hands, despite vehement Syrian denials.

The clear aspiration of the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah bloc is that, somehow, these missiles, rockets and terror assaults will be game changers, despite the failure of earlier attempts to wreck morale on the Israeli Home Front. With that in mind, the Home Front Command exercise could have strategic value. If it shows that the Home Front is ready and unlikely to collapse in the face of bombardment, it may lower the potential for a catastrophic miscalculation on the part of Hezbollah and its friends such as we saw in 2006. Let us hope so.