Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Home Front Command chief: Don't fall for illusions

In first interview since taking office, Major-General Yair Golan warns against moment when Gaza truce collapses, presents plan for air raid siren on cellular phones and suggests freeing army from handling extreme settlers
Hanan Greenberg

The terrifying message about a bomb planted on an El Al plane making its way from Paris to Tel Aviv did not alarm Major-General Yair Golan. "In light of the data we had, it sounded like a fabrication," he recounts, "but we don't have the privilege or time to evaluate the situation. So we dispatched all forces. Some were sent to the airport, others were put on high alert."

The principal fear of the entire defense establishment these days – attacks avenging the assassination of senior Hizbullah commander Imad Mugniyah – is being dealt with by the Home Front Command, which has been headed by Major-General Golan for the past eight years.

"We realize that if Hizbullah implements what it is promising us, we will be the target in the broad sense of the term. It could be Israeli delegations abroad and Jewish community targets. Thus we have conducted a series of exercises and war games."

If this threat is implemented, God forbid, the Home Front Command is preparing to send out an aid delegation to the scene.

But before having to deal with the dispatch of delegations abroad, the Home Front Command is preparing for the closer threats – here at home. The Second Lebanon War made something clear once and for all, something which has become apparent since the Gulf War: The home front is turning into the front.

Even without the Winograd Commission and the state comptroller's report, Major-General Golan knows very well that in the next conflict, the eyes of the entire country will be on him.

"The missile threat is definitely concrete," he admits in a special interview with Ynet. "Our deployment is not aimed at stopping missiles but at getting the citizens to do the right thing, receive all the information available and the means to protect their lives, and continue to function."

Like the entire army, Major-General Golan is also worried that the abilities will again be put to a test soon, when the calm in the south is shattered. He reveals that the Command recently expanded its preparation for the possibility of missiles being fired from Gaza, 30 kilometers into Israeli territory.

"The 'tahadiya' (period of calm) is being used by Hamas and the other terror organizations to build power. As long as it is stable, it's very good. When it breaks down, we should not delude ourselves. There are terror organizations there with improved capabilities, both in terms of the missile range and in terms of the size of warheads, and we have a problem here."

The general believes that those who hang their hopes on the response provided by the anti-missile systems being built are making a mistake and misleading others.

"We mustn't create the illusion that an 'iron dome' will hover over the State of Israel and will really prevent missiles from infiltrating. What is being built will provide an answer to the heavier missiles; warheads which carry a nuclear or chemical bomb. Not Katyusha rockets."

The Home Front Command chief also warns against self-delusion in terms of the "heavy" threats. "It's not on the level of dealing with a massive launch. If we want to stop a threat, it's not only through defense – we must also move to the offense."

Air raid siren – on cell phones

The offensive side the general is referring to is not in his field. He is in charge of preparing the citizen for such an attack, until the barrages stop. Naturally, one of the main issues is deterrence.

"It's an element which saves lives more than anything," says Golan. "We have made dramatic improvement on this issue, there are many more systems revealing various missiles, including the new American radar. There has also been a dramatic rise in the amount of sirens."

In this context he mentions the move expected in early 2009 of dividing the country into 27 warning regions instead of the traditional 10.

"This will allow for greater endurance during an ongoing attack. Not many civilians will have to enter bomb shelters and stay there, but only in smaller and smaller areas. And this is not the final point: Today we are examining the possibility of shifting to more than 150 warning regions, but that won't happen before the end of 2010."

Some of his research work even includes the possibility of providing a personal alert – on one's cellular phone.

"There are 10 million devices in Israel and the number is constantly rising. This means that every citizen walks around with at least one device. So if we can provide a direct warning to cell phones, whenever we know 'a missile is about to land here,' you'll get a message."

This, he says, will improve the times the alert is given and the accuracy on the ground.

"The meaning of all this in an ongoing conflict is endurance. The moment you know how to get citizens into a bomb shelter or fortified room in time, remove them in time, violate their life routine as little as possible – we'll be in a different place."

No money – no masks

Golan paints an alarming picture in terms of personal protection – the A.B.C (Atomic, Biological and Chemical) kits, which were collected from the public and are being restored.

"This threat is only becoming increasingly concrete. It's enough to quote (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly. We didn't hear such harsh statements even during the Saddam Hussein period. The Syrian ability is known to us all. And in a perennial outlook, I cannot say it's unimaginable that it will reach Hizbullah."

What raises the concern is the failure to implement the government decision to start distributing the masks to the residents in January, due to budgetary constraints.

"We can't start distributing and we can't create new kits at the required pace. This puts the entire population in a very problematic situation. We believe in a concept of personal protection for each citizen, who can go out to work with an A.B.C. kit attached, and we are essentially unable to implement this principle and are in a very inconvenient situation.

"We must remember that the mask is undoubtedly the ultimate response against chemical warfare – inside a sealed room you raise the fortification factor hundredfold. This is a dramatic thing, it's not trivial."

As for the nuclear threat, Golan says that "the defense area in this context is very complicated, almost impossible. I believe that in terms of this issue the preparation on the national level is more complicated, and I don't want to go into it.

"And of course we also have the active defense abilities, the detection and interception systems, and more. The defense infrastructure and A.B.C. kits also have a role against some of the radiation types and we have a role in this issue."

Where will we escape to from Tel Aviv area?

And back to Lebanon. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said that Hizbullah possesses 40,000 rockets and missiles – four times more than what it had at the end of the war. But even in light of this threat, Major-General Golan does not see need for massive evacuation of residents in case of war, and in any event, there is nowhere to go.

"We checked the drop in the electricity and water consumption and in the amount of garbage collected during the Second Lebanon War. It appears that 60% of the population went nowhere. I believe it won't be much different in the future as well."

Yet he does understand those who choose not to remain in the missile range. "Do they expect a citizen to wait? I'll never say, 'Be strong, don't move.' But I will say, 'Care not only for yourselves. Volunteer for emergency missions.'

"We, on our part, will not help people get somewhere else. We mustn’t deal with this at all. We have more important missions in a state of emergency. We will evacuate the needy, the disabled, the elderly and the exhausted.

"We must understand: With Hizbullah, most Katyusha rockets have a 107 and 122 mm diameter. If you have a roof over your head, your chance of getting hurt is low. In the long-range missiles, the issue of north, south or center becomes irrelevant. The ranges have increased, and the heavier and deadlier missiles will land deep inside. They won't fire a 302 mm missile on Kiryat Shmona – it would fly to Haifa and Tel Aviv. Where exactly will we run to?"

"What we must explain to Israelis today," Golan concludes, "is that strength is an obligation and there is nowhere to run. It's not that if you are in one community or another, things will be better or worse. I don’t see where all the residents of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area will suddenly escape to. Where will they disappear to? We must talk about endurance, about proper conduct, and I can say that the State of Israel is better prepared for an attack that any other country in the world."

Major-General Golan attributes great significance to the way municipalities function during a crisis. Since the last war, the link between Home Front Command and the municipalities has deepened through the use of an army liaison officer. The officer, normally in the reserves with the rank of colonel, is stationed in the municipality gathering information for any emergency. If an emergency occurs he will receive a staff of six to eight officers to help with the situation.

"After the war there was a realization that we could not rely on what the media or an elected official would say. The media would emphasize the negative while the elected official would downplay the seriousness of a situation. This is why we need an objective source to systematically gather information and provide us with the entire picture."

Free IDF from dealing with settlers

Golan, who commanded the Judea and Samaria Division, takes credit for one of the IDF's most impressive achievements in the region: Reducing the number of terror attacks in Israel originating in the West Bank.

"This is systematic work done over many years, which did not start with me and did not end with me," he says. "There are no victories here; it's not the Six Day War and not World War II. It expresses a firm policy of dealing with such a threat. There is a multi-channel solution here, not just a security-related one. They control the ground, the roots of terror, and deal with the financial institutions."

According to Golan, military action in the West Bank has created a different reality for the Palestinians, who are even willing to take limited security responsibility.

"Let's not fool ourselves, the current display of control in Jenin and Nablus was not brought forth by pure Palestinian motivation, but by internal and external pressures that we have created.

"They understood that if Israel runs everything, where are they headed? When we placed responsibilities in their hands, it was done with terms, which they, with their unimpressive forces, could handle reality. I am in favor of using judgment: Where we see we can help, we will. Where we can't, we won't."

But Palestinians are not the only group Golan has dealt with as division commander. In regards to the recent violent incidents by settlers in the region, he states that "it's a minority that is not representative of the majority. They are attention grabbers, noise makers with strange beliefs.

"There are some 260,000 people living in Judea and Samaria, and most of them are law abiding citizens. When facing those militant elements, it's wrong to present the army as something that can provide the ultimate answer. There are legal matters that lack the proper legal infrastructure. Once that is created it needs to be enforced, but that is a matter for the police, not the IDF. What is the army expected to do?"

When his tenure as division commander ended, Golan was in the running for the position of the prime minister's military secretary. An investigation into misconduct derailed that option, which led to him being reprimanded and his promotion held back for a few months before joining the General staff.

Was he insulted? "No, to feel insulted is the wrong way to go. I think that what I did was done with a clear head, and I was punished accordingly. I have no misgivings about anyone. I feel great now, and with this new job I'm exploring a new wonderful, interesting and fascinating world."

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