- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

RAMAT GAN, Israel — Sirens wailed throughout Israel as thousands of rescue personnel in cities in the country’s center and south scrambled to a series of simulated terrorist and missile attacks.

The purpose of the unprecedented two-day exercise that ended yesterday, emergency officials said, was to test their response to a September 11-like confluence of strikes against Israeli civilian and infrastructure areas.

There were Palestinian rocket barrages from Gaza in the town of Sderot, a chemical bomb at a school in this Tel Aviv suburb, and a conventional missile explosion at a Tel Aviv power plant. Soldiers were drafted as screaming schoolchildren, and others played the parts of hysterical parents and aggressive journalists from abroad.

With widespread concern about looming confrontations in the Gaza Strip; the border with Lebanon and Syria; and Iran, the display was also meant to win back the confidence of a public deeply jaded toward the government and security forces after the bungling of last summer’s war with Hezbollah.

“We made mistakes,” said Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Gershon, head of the army’s Homefront Command, Israel’s equivalent of the National Guard. “But those that made mistakes need backing. We saw the war as a crisis and an opportunity, and through these exercises, we’re implementing the lessons of the last war.”

Dubbed “turning point,” the $500,000 operation involved one out of every four police officers in addition to firefighters, soldiers, emergency personnel, hospitals, and government offices. The drills covered 133 municipalities as perplexed bystanders watched.

But in a country still not over the trauma of the missile attacks, an afternoon siren was enough to startle even those who knew it was just a drill. Although Iran’s nuclear program is constant worry for Israelis, the exercises did not include any scenarios of an atomic blast.

“The minute [Iran] has a nuclear option, it will be Israel’s most critical threat,” said Shimon Romach, Israel’s national fire chief. “We would not like to be in a war. We have enough firefighting even on peaceful days, but on the other hand, we have to be prepared.”

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