JERUSALEM // Israel's civil defences are not ready to protect the population in a missile war, an opposition legislator said yesterday, fuelling debate about the feasibility of an attack on Iran's nuclear programme.
Almost one in four Israelis lack access to bomb shelters, whether communal or reinforced rooms in private homes, said Zeev Bielski, the chairman of a parliamentary panel on Israel's home defence preparations.
"Are we prepared for a war? No," he told Reuters. "Things are moving too slowly and we are wasting very precious time."
Such shelters could be vital if Israel was to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and Tehran struck back, either directly or through its allies on the borders of the country.
Israel says 100,000 rockets and missiles are pointed at it, many of these held by Syria, Lebanon's Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, although they may decide to sit out any war between Israel and Iran.
The Civil Defence Ministry, set up after Israel suffered thousands of rocket strikes in the 2006 Lebanon war, confirmed Mr Bielski's data while trying to play down his alarm.
"If everyone does what they are expected to do during an emergency, the situation will be tenable," one ministry official said.
This seemed to reinforce remarks in November by the defence minister, Ehud Barak, who said that should Iran retaliate, it could inflict fewer than 500 fatalities "if everyone stays in their homes". The discrepancy between the vulnerability of Israel's home front and the relatively low casualties forecast by the government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu has several roots. Mr Bielski, a member of the centrist opposition party Kadima, said Israel's missile interceptors and regular civil defence drills for emergencies stood it in good stead. But he added: "Even if the number of dead is 500, we need to do a lot more to stem that. Any number is too many for us."
A report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that Iran's ballistic missiles would be "lucky" to hit within a one or two-kilometre range of their targets in Israel. But it noted that Israel was 92 per cent urbanised, making even random strikes potentially devastating.
An Israeli missile expert, Uzi Rubin, cautioned against optimistic predictions. "We have not done enough, but this is a democratic country, which sometimes has to make choices between defending its citizens and improving their quality of life," he said. Many independent experts believe Israel lacks the firepower to take on Iran's nuclear sites alone. The veiled threats to attack may be aimed at stiffening world powers' resolve against Tehran, they say.
Israel's slow digging in on the home front and the fact a successor has yet to be named for the outgoing civil defence minister, Matan Vilnai, may support that idea that the government does not see a showdown with Iran as imminent.
Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel's top-rated Channel Two TV news, said Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu saw playing up the spectre of war as a means of "making the Iranians feel fear, the Americans take action, and the Europeans impose sanctions".