Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Israel's elaborate civil defences save hundreds of lives

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Between July 8 and August 4, Gaza militants fired over 3,350 rockets at Israel. Despite that barrage, Israel reported only three dead and 82 wounded civilians. Some observers therefore dismissed the fire as mere "bottle rockets" that did not justify Israel's heavy counterattacks. But the rockets were lethal enough; together they carried some 53 tons of explosives. The low toll was actually due to Israel's defensive efforts.

Israel's bomb shelters and warning systems form part of its defence. They rarely make the news, but since 2005 the country has spent half a billion dollars preparing its civil defences. This reduces the casualties that occur if rockets strike.

Bus stop shelters in southern Israel are built from concrete, rather than glass. Many homes have a reinforced room where the family can hide. Loudspeaker and cellphone alerts give residents a few seconds to sprint for cover.

Research suggests these measures prevent most potential casualties. One study estimates fatalities would be at least three times higher without these expensive preparations.

Israel's Iron Dome missile defence systems provide a more visible line of defence. They claimed to have shot down 83 per cent of urban-bound rockets last month. That implies the casualties could otherwise have been another six times higher.

Those interceptions were pricey. Israel is now spending $225 million to resupply its batteries, or about $389,000 for each of the 578 rockets intercepted. That is in addition to the technology's billion-dollar development cost, and the half-billion spent to build the 10 batteries.

There is also some skepticism about those interceptions. Some analysts think the success rate was much lower than claimed. The interceptor missiles clearly were exploding in the sky. But if the blasts didn't disable a warhead, it could still blow up its target.

Israel also avoided casualties by preemptively destroying rockets on the ground in Gaza. Aircraft and artillery attacked 1,100 in the first phase of Operation Protective Edge. The ground assault eliminated another 1,900, including ones hidden underground or in United Nations' schools.

If those 3,000 rockets had been launched, they could have increased Israel's civilian casualties by 89 per cent.

But those preemptions were tragically costly. Israel's military spending for the operation approached $2 billion. Army casualties were high, Palestinian casualties were higher and Gaza was devastated.

The rockets admittedly were weak in one sense. Compared to the previous 2012 conflict, their accuracy was lower. Only 21 per cent of them headed towards Israeli towns this time, versus 32 per cent in 2012. Otherwise, Israel's casualties would have been 54 per cent higher still.

The accuracy might have decreased because the militants fired their unguided rockets at longer ranges this time. They threatened more towns, but hit them less often.

The threat was enough to harm Israel's economy. The estimated loss due to fewer tourists, closed businesses, etc., is $1.3 billion. That's about $387,000 per rocket fired.

Now let's combine all these factors. (We'll conservatively assume that the Iron Dome only had a 41 per cent interception rate, half the apparent figure.) What if Israel had prepared no civil defences, no interception system, no preemptive strikes and faced fire as accurate as in 2012?

Multiplication shows Israel's civilian casualties would have been about 15 times higher. That means about 1,275 dead or wounded instead of 85 -- hardly "bottle rocket" results. The total would have approached the 1,531 casualties actually inflicted by Hezbollah's rocket attacks from Lebanon in 2006.

The best means of preventing rocket casualties is a lasting diplomatic agreement. But that has been elusive so far. Attaining peace in the Middle East is not rocket science -- it's much more complex than that.

Michael J. Armstrong is an associate professor at Brock University. He has been the Fulbright visiting research chair in war and peace studies at Norwich University, and a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 A7

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