Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Israel's Terror Drill
Across Israel Tuesday, there were dozens of bizarre scenes combining horror with comedy.
The horror was what the two-day nationwide drill was simulating: mass rocket attacks, chemical bombings and suicide bombings in which hundreds of people are killed, many more wounded, and the country is thrown into a state of emergency.
In part the purpose of the drill was to apply lessons learned from last summer’s war with Hizballah. Then, many Israelis complained the emergency services did not respond properly to the crisis. The drill, though planned before that war, has become part of a process of self-examination in which every part of the country’s infrastructure that dealt with the war—the army, the political leadership, the police, the medical services, social services, etc.—is being examined.
In some cases the re-examination is unofficial. The official inquiries promise to ruin careers. The Winograd Commission, formed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to assess the conduct of the Lebanon war, may well lead to Olmert’s demise. Leaks already indicate that the findings could damn Olmert and several other senior Israeli politicians to political oblivion. And, in the rough and tumble of Israeli politics, there is already talk—and lots of it—of who will replace Olmert when he falls.
And in part the exercise was to prepare for what many fear could come: renewed war with Hizballah, intensified conflict with the Palestinians who are increasingly fed-up with what will soon be forty years of Israeli occupation, and, looming ever larger in the minds of many Israelis, the possibility of a showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme.
But back to the exercise: Thousands of police, soldiers, emergency personnel and others are participating, recreating multiple, simultaneous attacks on Israel. At a high school in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, I snuck away from the more than one hundred cameramen and reporters kept behind the police tape, and stood as nonchalantly as I could among dozens of army and police officers and bigwigs on hand to observe the exercise. I had a small video camera with me, and hoped to get shots no one else could. At the other edge of the crowd, I saw still photographer Alexandra Boulat, who had also snuck around. Together we helped ourselves to the brass’ coffee, buns and biscuits, and waited for the action to begin. After a half hour of speeches and presentations by various men in uniforms, we heard shark crackles coming from the other side of the school, and moments later a man in a blue jacket and a red-and-white kaffiyeh, or Arab headdress, running through the playground with an AK-47 assault rifle. He fiddled for a few moments with a black bag then ran away. Seconds later thick yellow smoke (meant to be a deadly chemical agent) filled the air, and the soldiers cum students, many lying on the ground, half-heartedly called out for help.
After a few minutes delay police in chemical suits showed up, then ambulances, then soldiers. After that a group of young men, high school students, came rushing in, some with small video cameras. They were reporters and I must say, they were the most convincing participants. They shouted and harassed the police, tried to get through police lines, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. Later still, a larger crowd of similarly young men showed up, shouting even louder. They were the parents, followed by more young men, supposed to be the angry mob.
All the while, ambulance crews were trying to take away the wounded, and real journalists were trying to extract a story from the simulated pandemonium.
Even though it was all deadly serious business, there was something light hearted about it all. Many of the participants, young men and women doing their compulsory military service, many still in their teens, simulated the dead and the dying. They had smiles on their faces, were giggling when they were supposed to be gagging. The blood was just red dye. And when the exercise was over, they arose from death, had a laugh, brushed themselves off and walked away.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
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