A sobering statistic: Israel has averaged a war every eight years since statehood.
With that in mind, and with the memory of frightened civilians in the north left on their own while under rocket attack from Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, a small group of Israeli strategists started thinking about how to better prepare and mobilize the population before the next war, or natural disaster.
Those discussions now have advanced from the conceptual stage to the beginning of a concerted effort to lay the groundwork — through legislation and awareness on a local and national level — for a major project to protect the Israeli home front, The Jewish Week has learned.
“Israeli society is vulnerable to the risk of collapse,” said Gidi Grinstein, founder and director of Re’ut, an independent Israeli think tank that advises the government. He said that while the government may believe otherwise, the level of preparedness for a nationwide emergency is “inadequate,” and that there is a “dangerous gap of scale between the needs of people and the capacity of the government” to meet those needs.
He cited as evidence the chaotic situations in some areas during the 2006 Lebanon War, when civilians were a prime target of Hezbollah. Many people were evacuated from the north, where rocket fire was heaviest, but others essentially were left to fend for themselves.
Until now, national security in Israel has emphasized victory on the military front, with less attention to the home front. But Israeli officials note that, based on recent history, including the two intifadas, the 2006 Lebanon conflict and ongoing rocket attacks in the south from Gaza over a number of years, the emerging strategic goal of Arab terror groups is to wage military attacks against Israeli civilians, knowing they cannot defeat the Israel Defense Forces in a conventional war.
Israelis talk about “the next war” as an inevitable event, not a hypothetical one. All the more reason to act now, Grinstein says, to prevent a Katrina-like scenario, resulting in the breakdown of law and order, and trust in the government.
For the last year, Re’ut has been working with officials of the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), an alliance of 40 service organizations seeking to improve the trauma-response capacity of the Israeli mental health system, with a focus on children, Holocaust survivors and new immigrants.
Established and funded by UJA-Federation of New York seven years ago, the ITC has been putting into practice the kind of on-the-ground training and programming that the Re’ut strategists had been theorizing about among themselves.
“It’s been a great match” between Re’ut planners and ITC officials with years of “experience and expertise,” Grinstein said.
Alisa Kurshan, vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources at UJA-Federation, is credited with bringing the two groups together. She said the joint effort, with support from UJA-Federation, offers a way for the charity to maximize the impact of its dollars in helping Israel prepare for a crisis rather than simply responding once an emergency is at hand.
One aspect of a new, detailed Re’ut-ITC proposal, known as “Resilience Network: A Concept Framework for Israel’s National and Local Resilience,” is for the government to set aside millions of dollars each year in advance of an emergency.
The main goal of the plan is to shift the effort of preparedness on the home front from the Ministry of Defense to every level of Israeli society — a tall order.
“National resilience” is defined in the proposal as “the capacity to overcome crisis by adaptation, while minimizing casualties and preserving a basic quality of life and community’s core of identities and values.”
The plan asserts that such resilience is “created both bottom-up through resilience of individuals, households, organizations, businesses and communities, as well as top-down by leadership.”
Such an effort requires cooperation on every level of society, but Grinstein pointed out that Israelis have a strong sense of motivation and recognize the necessity of such a project.
“The point is to inspire people and give them the tools. We don’t need to convince them; they ‘get it’ immediately,” he said. “We want to create an environment where hundreds of thousands of people will be mobilized to act.”
With the proposal complete, the plan calls for setting in motion legislation, regulations, incentives and infrastructure throughout Israeli society to ensure that the supply of services would continue during an emergency.
In a sense, until now “everyone is responsible and no one is responsible” for such a sweeping project, Grinstein said, adding that while government ministers he has spoken with are fully on board, the devil will be in the details as bureaucrats are assigned to put changes in place.
Talia Levanon, director of the ITC, agrees, but notes that “facts on the ground” — namely the ’06 Lebanon War and the Hamas rocket attacks on the south — have underscored the need for national preparedness.
“The government policy planners are not only talking the talk but walking the walk now,” she said. “They no longer say, ‘We can do it on our own,’” but are eager to work with the ITC and Re’ut in preparing for crises.
“The next war,” according to Levanon, will be “all over the country,” and it will no longer be possible to transfer citizens from the north to the south, as happened three years ago. “People will have to remain where they are,” placing the burden on the more than 250 local community councils to coordinate emergency preparedness.
Though acknowledging that Israel is not known for long-term planning, Levanon said she is confident the work can be done because the elements are in place, with officials recognizing the need for coordination. “We are all speaking the same language,” she said.
In her seven years as director of ITC, Levanon said she has seen her group’s work evolve from treating terror victims during the Intifada to taking a proactive and now national perspective, coordinating response teams and helping to create a network of resilience and preparedness.
The next step, she said, is establishing a consensus of principles, definitions and requirements among the community councils, government and private agencies.
One delicate aspect of the challenge is bringing Israeli Arabs, about 20 percent of the national population, into the process. Many in the north were helped in 2006. “The community is both cautious and welcoming,” said Levanon, noting that one of the four training centers created in the north by the ITC is in Nazareth, where Arab professionals help train their own emergency respondent teams.
There is also a training center in the south, and Levanon said it functioned well during the war with Hamas last winter, when rockets were hitting Sderot and nearby communities.
“We learned a lot from the experience in the north” during the war with Hezbollah, Levanon said.
She praised UJA-Federation for broadening ITC’s mission from responding to emergencies to planning for them.
She said the current partnership represents “a rare opportunity” where the philanthropists (UJA-Federation), the implementers (ITC-trained groups), the planners (Re’ut) and the government “are moving together. But we have to keep pushing forward.”
She said the biggest challenge is moving from planning to implementation. The advocates are working to create political action committees and are approaching members of Knesset to initiate legislation that would broaden the definition of and preparation for first-responders (now primarily soldiers, police, fire fighters and medical experts) to include school teachers, social workers, office staff, etc.
Local municipalities would be charged with creating resilience networks in their areas; civilian volunteers would be recruited and trained so they could help others during a crisis. The same would apply to other sectors, including businesses, schools, agencies and households.
These thousands of units, called “nodes” by the planners, would be trained both to act independently as well as in coordination with each other.
ITC and Re’ut are planning a conference on national resilience in January and hope to see a national week of preparedness put into place next spring.
“The threat is there,” Levanon said. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)