February 27, 2012 5:14 pm

Israel gets ready for Iran retaliation

As they ponder the option of a military strike against Iran, Israeli leaders have started to worry about targets closer to home.

Prompted by concern over a possible Iranian counter-attack, they are debating how well their own country is prepared for war. Iranian leaders have left Israel in no doubt that a strike on its nuclear facilities would invite harsh retaliation. The latest threat came on Saturday, when Gen Ahmad Vahidi, the Iranian defence minister, warned that “a military attack by the Zionist regime will undoubtedly lead to the collapse of this regime”.

On previous occasions, Gen Vahidi has warned of a “crushing response” to any Israeli strike.

Though some in Israel dismiss such threats as bluster, most senior Israeli officials fear that the country’s home front would indeed be severely tested in a conflict with Iran.

“The paradigm of war has changed,” Dan Meridor, the deputy prime minister in charge of intelligence and nuclear affairs, told foreign journalists in a recent briefing. “In the past there was a battlefield where tanks fought tanks and planes fought planes … now the war is mainly in the home front.”

The last time Israel faced a sustained attack, during the 2006 war with Hizbollah, the “real battlefield” was in northern cities such as Haifa and Kiryat Shmona, Mr Meridor said.

He added: “If there is a war, and I hope there won’t be war, they are not going to hit just Israeli soldiers. They are mainly aiming at the civilian population.”

Much like the debate on a strike on Iran, the discussion about its aftermath is marked by sharply diverging opinions. Officials and analysts are split on the question of Iran’s capability and willingness to hit back, but also on the likely role of Tehran’s allies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Israel estimates that the Lebanese Hizbollah group, for example, has an arsenal of 50,000 rockets and missiles, which are stationed just across Israel’s northern border.

Should it decide to enter the fray and help its Iranian sponsor, Hizbollah could strike at targets deep inside Israel, including the densely-populated coastal plain around Tel Aviv.

The most catchy estimate of the likely Iranian response is expressed in a simple mathematical formula: x(1991 + 2006 + BA). The formula, as one former senior security official explains, is meant to capture the combination of threats faced by Israel in the aftermath of a strike.

The first is that of an Iranian missile attack on Israel, echoing the barrage fired by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War in 1991. The second threat is that of a rocket and missile attack by Hizbollah, as happened during the brief 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese group. BA stands for Buenos Aires, scene of deadly bomb attacks against the Israeli embassy in 1992 and a Jewish cultural centre in 1994.

Israeli officials believe that such sites abroad could be targeted once again should there be a conflict with Iran.

The ‘x’ of the formula is a multiplier, suggesting that this time the impact of all three lines of attack would be worse than before: Hizbollah’s arsenal, for example, is larger and more sophisticated today than it was in 2006. Israel believes Iran itself has hundreds of missiles that can reach Israel, and is probably in a position to inflict more damage than Iraq was two decades ago.

“The Iranians will not set the Middle East on fire,” the former official said. “They will react and they will retaliate…but the reaction will be calculated and according to Iran’s means.”

He added: “Is 40 missiles on Tel Aviv nice? No. But it is better than a nuclear Iran.”

The problem, according to Zeev Bielski, a lawmaker from the centrist Kadima party, is that Israel’s cities are less prepared for such a barrage than they should be. “Iran [and its allies] will shoot hundreds and maybe thousands of rockets and missiles at our heavily-populated cities. That is what we have to be ready for,” he said.

Mr Bielski, who chairs the parliamentary subcommittee on home front readiness, points out that 1.7m Israelis currently live in homes without shelter or safe rooms, and that more than half the population has no gas masks. “All these years, we were concentrating on the readiness of our army,” Mr Bielski said. “But today the readiness of the home front dictates to a large degree the readiness on the front itself.”

He added that Israelis were indeed ready to face an initial Iranian response, but cautioned that more needed to be done to prepare the home front for a more protracted conflict. “Sometimes a war doesn’t finish in 24 hours,” he said.

Experts point out that Israel boasts one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated anti-missiles shields in the world. The country has developed and installed the Arrow system to intercept ballistic missiles fired from a distance, and the Iron Dome system to counter the threat from shorter-range rockets and missiles. Both have been tested repeatedly and found to be effective – but neither offers complete protection.

Some Israeli leaders, most notably Ehud Barak, talk down the danger of Iranian retaliation. The defence minister has repeatedly dismissed the chances of heavy Israeli casualties, saying there was “no chance” that an Iranian military response would kill more than 500 Israelis.

Few found that assessment, given in November last year, reassuring. “For a small country like Israel, 500 is a lot,” Mr Bielski said.

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