Israel Plans to Evacuate 78,000 People in Preparation of War Against Hezbollah

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HAARETZ – The Israel Defense Forces has drawn up plans to evacuate civilian communities in the North in the event of war with Hezbollah, Haaretz has learned. The move marks a stark departure from consensus Israeli doctrine and is likely to spark heated debate.

Ostensibly, this is a deviation from the defense ethos of Kibbutz Negba in the battles with the Egyptians on the southern front in the War of Independence, an ethos that became entrenched and nearly sanctified since then: Israel does not evacuate civilians and does not abandon communities under military attack by the enemy, at any price. Any withdrawal from a single centimeter will be considered a failure, even a defeat.

In truth, other locales have had their civilian populations evacuated and even abandoned, including in 1948 and in the Yom Kippur War in the Golan Heights. In any case, the IDF is not talking about withdrawing its forces but rather about an evacuation of civilians, as orderly as possible, from the conflict zone during hostilities to reduce civilian casualties and enable the army to defend these locales more effectively.

Despite their awareness of the expected criticism, during this past year Aviv Kochavi and Home Front Command head Yoel Strick – who will replace Kochavi as head of Northern Command next year, when the latter becomes deputy chief of staff – have been formulating a comprehensive action plan called Safe Distance.

The plan, the details of which are being published here for the first time, is intended to be put into effect from the moment war breaks out in the north or, in the case of an intelligence warning, in the hours before the fighting begins.

It relates to the communities in the range of up to four kilometers from the border with Lebanon, more or less congruent with the range of the heavy Burqan rockets, and to a number of additional locales that are considered relatively vulnerable. The plan covers about 50 communities, home to about 78,000 people. Twenty-two of the locales are within only one kilometer of the border.

In the strip within a kilometer of the border, the population numbers 24,000, including the residents of two relatively large population centers, the town of Shlomi and moshava (agricultural village) Metulla. Apparently publication of the plan is aimed at instilling awareness among the inhabitants, coordinating expectations with them in advance and making it clear that in time of need there will be an organized procedure in place, not a disorganized scramble to flee.

A senior officer in Northern Command told Haaretz that evacuating the locales “could knock the ground out from under Hezbollah’s moves. Even if a Radwan unit manages to penetrate into a community, it will find the place empty of inhabitants and will have to deal with IDF fighters. This will pull the rug out from under their plans. We are now completing the preparation for a case in which we will have to implement this plan in the future. If a war breaks out, the final decision to evacuate civilians will, of course, be in the hands of the government.”

An evacuation drill in northern Israel, September 2016.Gil Eliyahu

Col. Itzik Bar, commander of the northern district of Central Command, says: “It is necessary to weigh things carefully, without tying ourselves up in doctrinal knots. During fighting, the IDF has to ensure delivery of vital services to locales under attack, provide them with warnings of rocket fire in their area and save the lives of people who have been hit. When the threat level in a community adjacent to the border is so high that it is difficult for you to promise this, the right thing will be to act in a different way and consider evacuation.”

Lt. Col. Yaniv Krief, regional defense officer of the Galilee Formation that is responsible for the border with Lebanon, says the army estimates that not all the inhabitants will want to or be able to be evacuated. In Northern Command they believe that about 40 percent of the residents will leave independently. Others will need help.
According to Krief, “Close to one quarter of the inhabitants of communities close to the fence hold positions that will require them to stay: reservists, community functionaries, medical personnel and workers in essential industries. There will certainly also be people who will prefer to remain in their homes, for their own reasons.”

In ordinary times the Defense Ministry funds routine security coordinators in every community and preparedness groups that act in coordination with the IDF units responsible for the border. In times of emergency, the army will dispatch units from infantry brigade training bases to the communities, consisting of soldiers who are in the final stages of their training. Later, battalions from the Home Front Command rescue brigade will come.

During the first days of a war, in time of need these battalions will deal with rescuing casualties and, together with forces from Northern Command, will help arrange the evacuation of residents to more distant locations. The assumption is that at least part of the evacuation will be carried out while the communities are under fire.

The National Emergency Authority is assigned to help transfer inhabitants out of the locales by bus and bring them to intake centers in places determined in advance, far from the border. There too, of course, there will not be complete immunity from Hezbollah rockets but there is a considerable difference in the risk level of places adjacent to the border and those in the center and south of the country.

There are plans to evacuate inhabitants of specific communities to Jerusalem, Eilat, the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements near Tul Karm and Jenin. Col. Bar says the evacuation will be to hotels, hostels and if necessary to educational institutions that will be adapted as temporary housing for civilians.



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