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Israelis Questioning Civil Defense on Best Policy of Scud Protection

February 12, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Shaky public confidence in civil defense authorities deteriorated sharply Monday when it became apparent that the Israel Defense Force is itself confused over that is the best protection against Scud missile attacks.

Ever since they began on Jan. 18, the IDF has insisted that everyone stay home in a poison-gas-proof room during an air raid alert.

The public, however, feels better protected in underground air raid shelters and regularly flouts the official instructions.

An unseemly row broke out in the upper echelons of the IDF after its civil defense chief advised the public that the ideal protection was an underground shelter sealed against gas.

That was the recommendation of Brig. Gen. Ori Manos in a television interview Sunday. Unnamed “senior sources” in the IDF promptly called it “scandalous.”

The official army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai, made clear Monday that it remains the IDF’s firm conviction that lives are best protected in gas-proofed rooms.

That premise is arguable, especially after the devastating missile raid on the Greater Tel Aviv area early Saturday morning, which destroyed two dozen homes and damaged at least 500 buildings in a wide area.

There were no fatalities and no serious injuries, which the Orthodox have termed a miracle and attribute to divine protection.

But it may have been due to the fact that most residents ignored the IDF and took shelter underground.

The controversy has grown from the fact that all of the 33 Scud missiles fired into Israel since Jan. 18 carried conventional, high-explosive warheads that blasted buildings to rubble in densely populated areas.

The military and civil defense authorities are convinced, however, that Saddam Hussein still has the capability to launch a chemical or biological attack on Israel, as he has threatened.

Should that happen, the IDF warns, underground air raid shelters would become death traps, because gas is heavier than air and seeks the lowest level.


The IDF has broadcast detailed instructions on how to make rooms gas-proof. By and large, the public has complied. But Israelis have felt vulnerable sitting in their sealed rooms with gas masks handy while their blocks were shaken by exploding warheads.

The issue seems to be the standard apartment building, where even if a common underground shelter could be made gas-proof, getting to it within the limited advance warning time would be difficult for many tenants.

Gen. Manos laid down a time frame. He said that if it is possible to reach the shelter within two minutes after the alert sounds and if the shelter is gas-sealed, it should be used instead of a sealed room in each individual apartment.

Manos stressed that in advising a gas-proof underground shelter in preference to a sealed room, he was thinking of single-family homes and small apartment buildings, where everyone could reach the shelter in time.

Civil defense sources said Manos was addressing the reality that many people ignore the IDF sealed room recommendation and dash for their basement shelters as soon as the siren sounds.

But the IDF senior sources who attacked Manos in the media Monday insisted that the shelter option was advisable only in one- or two-story residential buildings.

They maintained that for the vast majority of the populace, the sealed room is still the best protection.

This lack of consensus among authoritative sources inevitably caused public confusion and a further sinking of confidence.

The media and general public have begun to ventilate basic doubts about the country’s state of preparedness for this war, the first in Israel’s history in which the civilian population, not the military, is bearing the casualties and destruction.


The daily Ha’aretz ran a front-page article Sunday by columnist Gideon Samet suggesting that the military’s stubborn faith in sealed rooms may mask the “scandalous fact” that there is a shortage of shelters against either conventional or chemical attack.

That came close to authoritative corroboration in a weekend article by Eitan Haber in the mass-circulation Yediot Achronot. Until last June, Haber was media adviser to then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Citing Gen. Ya’acov Lapidot, the defense minister’s special adviser on civil defense, Haber wrote that there are an estimated 3.7 million Israelis who have shelter space available for them.

But there are no shelters available for 1 million people — 21 percent of Israel’s population — not including those in the administered territories.

“Is it because of this serious shortage in shelters that the order was given that we should stay in our sealed rooms?” Haber asked.

The military has faith in plastic sheeting and masking tape, Haber said, while “4.5 million nervous citizens are waiting to ‘ambush’ whoever was to blame for the inadequate preparations made over the years preceding the Scud attacks.”

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