Special report Defending against attack: Tel Aviv bubble girds for war after decades of qu

On the seventh day of the Gulf War in January 1991, a Scud missile eluded American defenses and struck between two apartment buildings on Abba Hillel Street in Ramat Gan, a city that abuts Tel Aviv.

The missile, part of Saddam Hussein’s revenge for U.S. Operation Desert Storm, killed one woman and was one of many Scuds to hit Israel during the war.

Although Tel Aviv was a prime target for Palestinian suicide bombers in the 1990s and during the second intifada a decade ago, 1991 was the last time the city experienced missile attacks. Since 2006, it has seen far less fighting than Israel’s northern and southern regions, which are adjacent, respectively, to the Lebanon and Gaza borders.

Ruins of houses in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, caused by a Scud missile attack in 1991. photo/jta-flash90-nati shohat

But should war break out with Iran, Tel Aviv’s tranquility is not expected to last.

Iran and its proxy terrorist group, Hezbollah, now have missiles — Shababs and Fatah-110s — that can hit Israel’s largest metropolis. In a sign of Hezbollah strength, the group managed to fly a drone, financed by Iran, 35 miles into Israel on Oct. 6 before Israeli forces shot it down.

To prepare for the possibility of war, Tel Aviv has outfitted several large underground parking lots to serve as bomb shelters. The city has about 350 shelters totaling more than 10 million square feet — enough for about a million people. More than 400,000 people live in Tel Aviv, according to 2010 figures, with more than 3 million in its metropolitan area.

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, like Rambam Hospital in Haifa, can mobilize an underground facility with 1,000 beds in the event of a war.

David Aharony, director of Tel Aviv’s emergency and security department, touts his city’s “daily preparedness all year.” Residents can look up bomb shelters on an interactive map provided by the municipality, and a recent citywide mailing advised residents about the shelter closest to their home.

Otherwise, Aharony said, the city will try to operate on its normal routine even during war.

Public transit is planned to continue as usual, excluding the immediate areas around missile explosions. Service may be less frequent than on a normal day, as the Israel Defense Forces will use some public buses to transport soldiers, but Transportation Ministry adviser Michal Kala predicts that fewer people will be traveling because “people aren’t going to wait at a bus stop when a missile could hit them.”

Israel has been preparing for a potential attack since April by distributing gas masks to its citizens, with 40,000 new gas mask kits going out every month.

Israelis first received gas masks to guard against chemical attacks during the ‘91 Gulf War. Now the state has renewed distribution to guard against potential chemical attacks by Hezbollah, which could acquire the bombs from an unstable Syria or Iran. According to the Israeli military, slightly more than half of Israelis own gas masks.

But Tel Aviv and Israel as a whole also place significant responsibility on citizens to prepare themselves for conflict. The IDF’s Home Front Command recommends that residents buy flashlights, radios, bottled water and a fire extinguisher to take with them in case of evacuation.

The millions of tourists who visit Tel Aviv each year can’t make those preparations. Aharony said the municipality will treat tourists “like any other resident in [every] way.”

Officially, the task of keeping tourists safe falls to the hotels and Israel’s Tourism Ministry, which in wartime attempts to evacuate foreign nationals to their home countries.

While the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv “does not foresee any call for an evacuation” in the near future, embassy spokesman Geoff Anisman said the embassy would contact Americans via text message and email in the event of a war.

Should evacuation be impossible, hotels have been asked to provide for guests and, if necessary, to serve as gathering spots for other tourists.

The main challenge for Tel Aviv in the event of war would be psychological, said Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies. The city is referred to derisively as “the bubble,” and Israelis outside Tel Aviv often stereotype its residents as detached from the state’s security challenges.

Should war reach Tel Aviv, “there won’t be a lot of killing, but the question is whether the public will live with it” psychologically, Zisser said. “They haven’t been attacked. They haven’t experienced it.”

Reflecting that attitude, some shopkeepers on King George Street, a central artery in Tel Aviv, said they plan to keep their shops open even during a war.

“The government will take care,” said Matti Bismanovsky, who has run the Kef Li office supply store here for 30 years. “I’m not worried.”

But Ricky Danon, owner of the Bella Vintage clothing store, said that any war would be devastating.

“I’m scared to death of war,” she said. “I’ll hide under my pillow and pray for it to end.”