Doctors for Disaster Preparedness

Civil Defense in Israel During the Persian Gulf War: One Year Later by Major General Ya'acov Lapidot

Director General, Ministry of Police

Prior to September, 1991, Major General Lapidot was Assistant to the Minister of Defense on Civil Defense Matters and was responsible for the development of Israel's civil defense system immediately before and during the Persian Gulf War. Previous to this last position, Major General Lapidot served in the Israel Defense Forces in a variety of operational and staff functions.

The Persian Gulf War was a difficult experience for us. We were forced to sit and wait, taking no action, initiating no retaliation, while Scud missiles attacked our population. For the first time in its 43 years of existence, the State of Israel was faced with the threat of chemical weapons. Israel's population was not prepared for meeting such a threat when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

The Nature of the Iraqi Threat to Israel

In order to properly prepare ourselves for the Iraqi threat, we had to know precisely what it entailed.

Looking at a map helps to put the threat into perspective. In length, Israel is about equal to the State of New Jersey, while in area Israel is about equal to Rhode Island. Only 925 kilometers separate Baghdad from Tel Aviv.

Before August 2, 1990, we were not prepared for a missile attack, simply because we did not think that it could happen to us. Civil defense was not a priority. Only in the War of Independence of 1948-49 was the population in the center of the country attacked. In the Six Day War of June 1967, the air cover of the countries surrounding Israel was wiped out in a few short hours, the main reason for Israel's action being the need to protect the civilian population from air attack. In all our other wars, we have always taken measures to ensure the security of our population.

We have always considered conventional arms to be less threatening than nonconventional ones, such as chemical and biological weaponry. On television and on radio, Saddam Hussein proclaimed to the whole world that he would launch weapons in order to destroy half of Israel. The possibility that he would use nonconventional arms could not be ruled out.

Chemical warheads can be carried by long-, medium-, and short-range missiles. Chemical weapons can also be delivered by bombs dropped from aircraft and can thus have an effect at a distance of some 300 to 1000 meters downwind from the point of the bomb's explosion.

In addition to chemical warheads, Scud missiles can also carry conventional payloads with about 250 kg of TNT.

The Structure of Israel's Civil Defense System

The Civil Defense system was first established in Israel in accordance with civil legislation. Civil defense personnel are generally between the ages of 45 and 55, although some are in their late 50s. Israeli males aged 18 to 45 serve in the military system and active and reserve units. Military training is given all year round, in a three-year cycle.

Before August 2, we had carried out civil defense exercises at the local and national levels. The hospitals and national emergency economy system were placed on a standby position. We knew that we could rely on our national emergency economy system with its reserves of fuel, food, water, medical supplies, and other material and equipment needed for a for a nation at war.

In a national emergency situation, the government is in command of every aspect of national life. Direct ministerial responsibility rests with the Minister of Defense, to whom the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is accountable. In the event of war, both the Defense Minister and the Chief of Staff assume control of a variety of agencies: the Ministries of Health, Interior, and Police; the Red Magen David (this Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Health in peacetime), and the Fire Department (which, in normal circumstances, is monitored by the Ministry of the Interior). Thus, as war loomed on the horizon, the relevant Israeli civilian agencies became mobilized under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense. (Please see accompanying chart.)

The system sounds wonderful in theory, but was usually a failure in practice. Each civilian agency speaks a different language, and it is extremely difficult to integrate its functions with those of the other agencies. Only on August 2 did we really begin to prepare ourselves for an emergency. After that date, the emergency exercises began to take on a more realistic character. For the first time, we started to give the public what it really needed: "straight talk" about biological and chemical warfare--primarily about nerve and mustard gas--and about other matters that are generally hidden in documents labeled "Top Secret."

Getting the Public Ready for Chemical Warfare: Gas Masks

Before August 2, the Israeli population knew next to nothing about biological and chemical weapons. The very idea of such weapons was in itself frightening. So we started with simple, small-scale exercises, slowly progressing to longer, more difficult, and more realistic ones. And we began to distribute gas masks. We soon learned the effect of gas mask distribution on the public: uncertainty and a deluge of questions.

Our population numbers about five million. How were we to distribute masks to each person, adult, children, and infants? Usually, masks are issued to soldiers, firefighters, and personnel in emergency-oriented agencies. But how were we going to deal with infant clients? And what about asthmatics or persons with tracheostomies? About a quarter of a million people had a medical authorization stating that they were asthmatic and could not breathe through the gas mask filters. About 3000 Israelis have had tracheotomies.

The issue of gas masks becomes problematic in cases where the fit is not perfect or if we are dealing with infants or children aged three to ten. For the latter two age brackets, the adult masks are too large.

The solution we arrived at in order to deal with these various problems was incredibly simple: the "active mask." The device, which is worn over the head, is made of something that looks like a see-through vinyl but which is more suitable for use in a gas mask. The active mask has its own air blower, which pumps air through a filter and maintains an above- normal level of air pressure within the mask itself.

We needed to produce about a million such masks for children. And for the infants we manufactured small tents. The infant placed within the tent must be constantly supervised to ensure that he or she not become overheated; we were still in the summer season and the temperatures outside were very high.

Our child clients were not at all up-set by the active masks we offered them. In fact, we learned that the children were excited by the new masks, which, with their colorful stripes, were "children-friendly." The masks made the children look like astronauts or like characters out of a "Star Wars" movie.

Before August, 2, there were many yawning gaps in our preparation programs. After that date, everything began to speed up. Schools, from elementary level to universities, gave instruction and conducted emergency drills. Industries operating within the context of the national emergency economy began their preparations as well. We had to terminate the multi- year national preparedness program and commence a new and much shorter one for the entire country. President Bush had said that January 15 was the deadline, and we were in a race with the clock.

Air-Raid Shelters or "Sealed Rooms"

In order to buy time, we adapted the country's network of air-raid shelters, which are required by law in every public building, every school, every apartment house, every private home. However, these shelters were designed to protect our citizens from air attack and from conventional weapons, but not from chemical or biological ones. The air-raid shelter which is usually located on the ground floor or basement level, has solid concrete walls and provides 40 square centimeters of space per occupant. Thus, in situations of maximum occupancy, a shelter can offer "standing room only"; one can sit only by taking turns.

On August 2, the air-raid shelters were still not ready to fulfill their operational function. Residents throughout Israel were instructed to prepare their shelters; quick clean-up and paint jobs were carried out, burned-out bulbs were replaced with new ones, faulty electric wiring was repaired, doors were installed where necessary, and water was pumped out from flooded shelters.

A new concept introduced in the pre-war period was that of the "sealed room." Essentially, the sealed room was a sort of make-shift, quick-fix, do-it-yourself chemical warfare shelter. Through televised public service broadcasts and through informational material published in booklet form and in the newspapers, residents were instructed on how to prepare a sealed room in their own homes. Masking tape and plastic sheets constituted the principal materials. The masking tape was pasted around the edges of all windows (which had first been covered with plastic sheets to provide an added seal as well as to protect the sealed room occupants from shattered glass fragments), doors, and other openings, in order to ensure that chemical fumes could not penetrate the enclosed space of the sealed room. Whenever missiles were launched towards Israel, air-raid sirens were sounded throughout the country, television and radio broadcasts were interrupted, and the radio instructed residents to enter the sealed room, to make sure that all windows in that room were completely sealed, to block up the entrance door with a wet rag so that the sealing process could be completed, and to don their gas masks.

After a quickly executed research study, we came to the conclusion that sealed rooms would increase the level of protection by a factor of ten. Individuals would be protected even if they had not donned their gas masks properly and even if a perfect seal around their faces had not been created. Moreover, we were dealing with the threat of missile attacks. A missile launched in Iraq could reach Tel Aviv within only 4.5 to 5 minutes. If there is an alert in the middle of the night and you are a trained soldier, you would still need about two minutes to put on your uniform and take up your position. How long would it take for untrained civilians to wake up at 3 a.m. and climb down the staircase from their sixth- or eighth-floor apartment to the shelter in the basement of the apartment building? According to our calculations, most people would simply not make it to the shelter. We estimated that more individuals would be injured or killed in the mad rush from bed to shelter than from a direct missile hit. With a sealed room in their own apartment or home, residents could attain an adequate level of protection from chemical or biological weapons within four to five minutes. Since we thought that the main threat was chemical warheads, rather than conventional ones, we urged the populace to use sealed rooms instead of shelters, which were designed for protection against conventional weapons of the type employed during World War Two and during the last 43 years of Israel's existence.

In a gas attack, we told the public, it was best to remain on the upper floors, not the lower ones, since gas tends to be concentrated close to the ground. At the same time, however, we wanted residents to avail themselves of the shelter in their own home or in the apartment building. We made it clear that the shelter was only to be used if it could be reached within 4.5 to 5 minutes, which was the maximum time period between an alert and the anticipated landing of a missile. Since public shelters are usually not that accessible, this instruction pertained only to private ones, built into the home or apartment building. Thus, there was a contradiction between what we wanted and what was realistic. Nonetheless, given the particular circumstances, the sealed room proved to be the best available solution.

The Air-Raid Alarm System

The air-raid alarm system had to be repaired. Many of the sirens were not in proper working order because of the effects of the winter season. In the period preceding the first missile attack, we tried to fix the malfunctioning sirens and were able to do so in 90% of the cases. However, as an act of precaution, we told the public to rely on the radio and to be close to a radio receiver at all times of the day or night. We advised that everyone have a supply of batteries in the event of a power breakdown. But who could stay up all day and all night? After the third Scud attack, people were desperate for sleep. Therefore, we utilized what we called the "silent station." After a certain hour of the evening and until early morning, one of our radio stations would stop transmission and would resume transmission only in the event of a missile attack, in which case an alarm broadcast over the radio would be sounded. This arrangement allowed residents to sleep with the radio on, while the radio functioned as an automatic alarm system in the event of an Iraqi Scud attack.

The Role of the Local Authorities

It soon became apparent that the local authorities play a major role in offering material and moral support to their residents, who expected such support from the mayor whom they themselves had elected. In the overall war effort, the local authorities provided important assistance by establishing temporary housing and storage facilities for residents whose homes had been hit by missiles. Damage assessment work was carried out. Within a few days' time, residents of damaged homes were told how much compensation they could expect either through repair work carried out by the local authorities or through a direct cash payment. Compensation funds were supplied by the central government.

The local authorities also created emergency units to deal with repairs to municipal infrastructures: water, electrical power, sewage, telephone lines and natural gas systems, and so forth.

The Role of the Police

One lesson that became apparent during the war was the vital role played by the police in emergency situations.

About a month before the Persian Gulf War broke out, the senior commanders of the Israel National Police (INP) discussed the extent of the INP's preparedness in the event of an outbreak of hostilities. It was generally assumed that, in a crisis situation, the public would look to the police for assistance.

It was decided that the knowledge (of the country's topography and of explosive devices) and special skills of Bomb Disposal Division (BDD) personnel made them the obvious choice for deployment within the context of identification and detection units should Israel's population be attacked by missiles.

before the start of Operation Desert Storm, the INP had already acquired equipment for the detection and identification of nonconventional warheads and had initiated training courses for is personnel in the use of this equipment. Some 200 of the INP's senior officers had participated in special intensive Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training courses dealing with the area of chemical warfare.

However, there was a lack of first-hand information on the operational characteristics of these missiles and on the nature of the missile's warheads, whether conventional or nonconventional. Before the missile attacks began, the primary source for data was military intelligence. In order to overcome this difficulty, the INP quickly prepared training materials for distribution among its bomb disposal experts.

On January 15, the INP began working on the basis of a state-of-emergency mobilization.

Missile Spotting and Identification Procedures

During the war, the INP and the IDF jointly established a network of round-the-clock observation points throughout the country for identifying Scud-missile landing sites and determining the nature of the warheads, namely, convention or nonconventional (specifically, chemical).

One of the problems frequently encountered by the bomb disposal experts was the reliance on reports from citizens. These reports were sometimes the results of citizens thinking that they had smelt gas. In quite a number of cases, the location given for a landed missile was totally inaccurate.

Each time a missile was fired, the population was alerted that the warhead might be nonconventional. Unfortunately, the equipment initially used to identify the type of warhead was quite primitive, and more sophisticated instruments were acquired after the first missile launching.

The INP therefore developed missile landing site identification procedures, which include the various stages of identification: intake/analysis of citizens' reports on a missile landing, deployment of identification teams in the field, and actions to be taken if there has been a positive identification of a nonconventional (chemical) warhead. Were a chemical warhead to land in Israel, the IDF's Purification Teams would be immediately sent out to the afflicted area.

Furthermore, the INP's bomb demolition experts participated in ongoing training sessions on the detection and identification of chemical weapons and were constantly drawing operative conclusions from their work in the field. In order to deal more effectively with the stress and strain of their work, BDD personnel engaged in periodic discussions with the divisional psychologist.

In the course of the war, the INP stepped up its state of readiness and adopted various measures, such as doubling the number of patrol cars on duty, lengthening work shifts, reducing the number of personnel on leave, and cutting down on nonemergency activities.

In its wartime operations, the INP, which suffers from a chronic shortage of personnel, also received the assistance of Civil Guard volunteers and retired police officers.

Lessons from the Persian Gulf War

As can be seen from the above, the civil defense authorities engaged in a considerable amount of preparation in order to deal with this unique brand of national emergency.

However, it emerged that the Scud missiles were armed with only conventional warheads. There were 17 launchings in all, with 41 missiles having been fired at primarily urban- civilian targets. Although missiles were launched at the heavily populated areas in the center of the country, "only" two persons were killed and most of the injuries were light. About 10,000 homes were damaged, with 1,000 sustaining major damage. About 40,000 persons were affected by the attacks, with many having suffered psychological injury. In terms of indirect injury, ten persons died as a result of suffocation, although we had attempted to instruct the population in the proper use of the gas masks. The rate of cardiac failure and premature births rose, as did the level of psychological stress.

There were some indirect benefits: the crime rate dropped, since the criminals themselves were afraid of the missile attacks. There were also fewer traffic accidents.

According to public opinion polls, confidence in the Israel Defense Forces was high throughout the war. Over the past year, in the wake of public criticism and the State Comptroller's Report, the entire civil defense infrastructure has been revamped and a special Home Front Command has been established within the IDF to deal with wartime emergencies.

The role of the IDF's new Home Front Command is to create a coordinated infrastructure linking up all civilian agencies responsible for civil defense, such as the police, fire brigades, Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross), emergency ambulance services, the agencies responsible for economic activity in times of emergency, hospitals, etc. It is to be hoped that well-coordinated solutions to the homefront and to thereby allow the military to concentrate its efforts on the battlefront.