Israeli cities and towns will most likely bear the brunt of Iranian retaliatory missiles strikes should Israel unilaterally bomb Iran in an effort to destroy its nuclear facilities. This is not mere conjecture. In an increasingly bellicose war of nerves, Iranian leaders have issued shrill warnings to Israel to think twice before launching hostilities, even though, as Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi claimed on Aug. 22, Iran treats Israeli threats as little more than futile exercises in psychological warfare. Nonetheless, Iran has issued a steady stream of blustery statements.
Mostafa Izadi, Iran’s deputy chief of staff, has predicted that an Israeli strike would end in Israel’s “collapse.”
Mohsen Razaei, the former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards air force, has asserted, “If the Zionists commit the folly and attack Iran, they will receive a crushing blow… which will lead to their annihilation.” His successor, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, has said that an Israeli/Iranian war would give Iran reason to “get rid” of Israel “forever.”
Avaz Heidarpour, a member of Iran’s national security committee, has boasted that “all the Zionist regime’s military centres will be destroyed completely on the very first day of the war, as they are a high-priority target for Iranian missiles.”
A senior Iranian cleric, Seyed Reza Taqavi, has warned that “the heart of Tel Aviv” would be struck.
These threats were issued in response to a blizzard of media reports suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are prepared to order a preemptive attack on Iran in the near future.
The current tension begs the question whether Israel is really ready to deal with the prospect of Iranian reprisals.
Barak claims that a nuclear-armed Iran – which has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and which provides material assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas, two of Israel’s most potent enemies – would be far more dangerous to Israel than a strike itself.
Danny Yatom, the former director of the Mossad, dwelled on this theme at a conference on Iran earlier this year.
“As steep as the price for hitting Iran may be, a military strike on Iran will be less painful than the cost of living with an Iranian nuclear weapons threat,” he said. “We have only two options: to let Iran get the bomb, or to use military force against their military nuclear program.”
Yatom’s hawkish view is at odds with Israeli leaders such as President Shimon Peres, who believes that Israel should not act unilaterally. Still others contend that a combination of international economic sanctions, cyber warfare against Iran’s nuclear plants and assassinations of its scientists may well induce Tehran to step back from the brink.
At this juncture, however, Israel seems to be gearing up for a war with Iran, even though most Israelis oppose one.
The handwriting is already on the wall. Matan Vilnai, Israel’s former home front defence minister, told Maariv last month that Israel is preparing for a 30-day war on multiple fronts. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, recently predicted that an Israeli strike on Iran is only weeks or months away. In August, Efraim Levy, the former director of the Mossad, declared, “If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks.”
John Sawers, the head of Britain’s M16 spy agency, lent credence to their observations by saying that an Israeli (or American) bombing campaign is inevitable, given Iran’s determination to build a militarized nuclear arsenal and Israel’s determination to nip it in the bud.
Shortly after Vilnai announced he was leaving his post to become Israel’s ambassador to China, Netanyahu admitted that Israel has not invested sufficiently in home front defence. But he went on to say that Israel has developed an advanced warning system and thereby has readied itself for a missile onslaught.
Zeev Bielski, chair of the Knesset’s sub-committee on home defence, disagrees with Netanyahu’s upbeat tone. “The home front is not ready,” he told JTA this past March. “We have made improvements over the situation in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the home front was completely unprepared, but the situation is not good.”
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War – during which two Israelis were killed by Iraqi Scud strikes and more than 200 were injured, mostly in Tel Aviv – a law was passed under which all new residential buildings must have a reinforced room capable of surviving missile and rocket attacks.
But two decades on, an estimated 1.7 million Israelis still have no access to such rooms, while 40 per cent of Israel’s population have no gas masks to help ward off the effects of a chemical or biological attack.
In recent years, Israel’s Home Front Command has been working on a plan to reinforce still more buildings. But as Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the current director of military intelligence, noted in a recent speech, Israel remains vulnerable. By his reckoning, some 200,000 rockets and ballistic missiles are aimed at Israel by its principal enemies: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria.
During the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, fired nearly 4,000 rockets and missiles into Israel, causing havoc. Hezbollah, having acquired a stockpile of 40,000 rockets and missiles since then, would presumably fire many more rockets at Israel should it join forces with Iran in a war with Israel. Iran has a much more formidable rocket and missile capability than Hezbollah.
Israel is far from defenceless, having constructed, at great expense and with the financial and technical help of the United States, a battery of missile defence systems from the Arrow, which can intercept long-range missiles, to the Iron Dome, which can intercept short-range rockets. These missile and rocket shields, however, cannot fully protect Israel, as Israeli scholar Yiftah Shapir has indicated.
“The systems we have will cut down on the damage that missiles can cause,” said Shapir, director of the military balance project at Tel Aviv University. “Some of these missiles will make it to Israeli population centres. Israel should be ready for a long period of attacks, perhaps even months, and this may bring commerce and other aspects of civilian life to a halt. Israel’s major cities have never come under attack. This will be a very different and difficult experience for Israeli civilians.”
Col. Adam Zussman, the commander of the Dan region in the Home Front Command, agrees with this bleak appraisal, having told Ha’aretz several months ago that Tel Aviv will be hit with a barrage of missiles should a war with Iran break out.
Israeli casualty forecasts vary. The Israel Defence Forces claims that no less than 300 Israelis will be killed in a war, but Barak’s figure is 500. “It could be that there will be less casualities,” said Vilnai, “but it could be that there will be many more.”
Some 20,000 Israeli soldiers have fallen in the line of duty and thousands of Israelis have been killed in terrorist incidents in the past six decades. It goes without saying that, at a minimum, hundreds of Israelis will be added to that list should a war with Iran erupt.
This column appears in the September 13 print issue of The CJN