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ASHKELON—A chilling wintry wind blows over a water tower on the outskirts of coastal Ashkelon on the evening of Feb. 8, as a full moon rises to the east. A small group of IDF soldiers shivers on the flat concrete roof as they scan the darkening skies and wait.
On the first evening of a two-day drill, Home Front Command (HFC) spotter teams, geared and trained to identify incoming missile fire from a foe to the east—presumably Iran—are here to methodically practice their responses and to test their reaction time.
Their mission is simple, but their role is crucial: using an advanced laser-guided spotter scope, they follow a rocket’s trajectory and alert waiting HFC ground units of its expected point of impact.
“Our role is to track an incoming missile attack against Israel and direct the troops on the ground to arrive as fast as they can (to the impact site), and handle the threat on the ground,” IDF Cap. (res.) and ops commander Noam Ginzburg tells JointMedia News Service.
The decades-old white Mekorot Water Company structure overlooks a major north-south highway and a busy intersection leading into Ashkelon.
An operator of the tripod-mounted, GPS-synched device zeros in on the falling projectile, and follows its path. At the press of a button, the device fires an infrared laser beam at two points along the projectile’s falling arc. From that moment, internal programming extrapolates the full path into the ground and calculates to within a few feet where the projectile will hit within the heavily populated urban area.
Ginzburg, in his mid-30s, shoulders the responsibility of protecting the densely populated, target-rich coastal area stretching from Kassam-battered Sderot alongside the Gaza Strip, some five kilometers to the south, to Ashdod and its strategic port several kilometers to the north.
Ashkelon, itself home to a major power station, oil and natural gas pipelines, wharves, and numerous other strategic infrastructure facilities, has sustained dozens of Kassam and Grad rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza over the years. Luckily, however, none have managed to strike the facilities—yet.
The ground units “should be able to arrive at the affected area within a minute to a minute and a half,” Ginzburg says of the Hazmat-prepped forces. On Feb. 9, an army source says, the teams planned to drill hits by non-conventional warheads, including chemical weapons.
Down below, in a open field alongside the tower and over at a nearby gas station, soldiers fire a series of red flares several hundred meters into the air in different directions, in order to randomly simulate a rocket’s fiery exhaust and give the spotters’ gear something to lock on to.
The HFC has learned the hard way—from experiences during the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, 2009’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and Iraq’s 39 Scuds fired at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War—that the ability to accurately and immediately identify the precise spot a rocket hits can be difficult.
“The problem” deputy commander, Cap. (res.) Amit Sabag says, “is that the moment you have hits in urban areas, in addition to the IDF’s updates, the police and municipal emergency forces get hundreds of calls from residents saying, ‘The rocket hit here; the rocket hit there,’ and this phenomena can mislead you.”
The drill came a day after an announcement by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, during a U.S. visit to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i was pegged to become Israel’s next envoy to China.
Vilna’i’s ministry, established just over a year ago, was to be “a new stage in the improvement of Israel's readiness for an emergency,” he said at the time.
“The Israeli home front is made up of millions of people and thousands of bodies and organizations that need to know how to prepare for a time of emergency and how to act when such a situation occurs, whether it be a military confrontation or a natural disaster. The Ministry of Home Front Defense will guide, lead and coordinate all of the bodies that go into action on the civilian front in a time of emergency, and will work to improve their preparedness for emergency,” according to Vilna’i.
It’s unclear, so far, who will replace him in the post.
While the timing of the decision raised eyebrows in Israel due to the rapidly escalating tensions over a potential Israeli military strike to foil Iran’s clandestine drive to attain nuclear weapons, Ginzburg said the timing of the drill itself was coincidental.
“We planned this months ago, and we do it every year,” he said, adding that political appointments at the top were not their concern on the ground.
Politics aside, the HFC, along with the Israel Police, fire departments, municipal first-responders, Magen David Adom and Zaka rescue services, and Israelis from the Golan Heights to Eilat, have in the past year stepped up detailed simulations of the aftermath of a mass missile attack on the Jewish State.
JointMedia News Service was on hand for several such drills, among them a rapid, orderly evacuation of over 500 middle school students in Jerusalem into prepared bomb shelters with filtered ventilation, and another that tested full-scale emergency rescue responses to a rocket strike on a Tel Aviv power station, including mass triage after a deadly chemical payload detonated, killing and incapacitating scores of bystanders.
At the recent annual Herzliya Conference, military officials from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and on down, spoke frankly about the myriad of ballistic threat Israel was facing.
IDF Intelligence Directorate chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi put a shocking cumulative number to the threat.
Israel’s enemies—from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in Gaza, to Syria, Iran and others—have amassed 200,000 missiles, rockets, and mortars, ready for use in any potential conflict.