If Islamic militants in Gaza or Lebanon go to war with Israel, they could find their usual targets empty.
Israel is drawing up contingency plans to evacuate up to a quarter-million civilians from border communities to protect them from attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah or other Islamic militant groups.
The mass evacuations would be the biggest in Israel’s history, part of a bigger plan where the army works with municipalities to keep civilians safe.
All sides have been preparing in case a new round of warfare breaks out, although Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group sworn to Israel’s destruction, currently is tied down in Syria’s civil war fighting in support of President Bashar Assad. It also comes amid an uptick in tensions between Israel, Syria and Hezbollah.
Each side has warned that a new conflict would be worse than previous ones. Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets on Israeli communities in the 2006 war, while Israel bombarded militant targets in southern Lebanon. The month of fighting killed an estimated 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, as well as 44 Israeli civilians and 121 Israeli soldiers.
In 2014, 50 days of fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers killed an estimated 2,100 Palestinians, six Israeli civilians and 66 Israeli soldiers. There was widespread devastation in Gaza and thousands of rockets and mortars fired by Hamas and other Islamic militants at Israeli towns and cities.
Israel says Hezbollah and Hamas have rebuilt larger arsenals capable of hitting the entire country. Elements of the evacuation plan, codenamed “Safe Distance,” were disclosed by a senior Israeli officer in an interview to The Associated Press.
“In 2017, all of Israel is under threat,” said Col. Itzik Bar of the military’s Homefront Command. Preparations are underway for Israel to deal with “very high amounts” of incoming fire, he said.
Bar pointed out that Hezbollah has gained battle experience from fighting alongside Assad’s forces and that Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite group’s chief, has recently increased his rhetoric about attacking Israel.
The idea is to “remove the threat by not having civilians there,” Bar said. “We want a meeting of army and Hezbollah forces and not civilians with Hezbollah forces.”
The evacuation plan would apply mainly to communities adjacent to the borders, he said.
“In places where we understand there is a great danger to civilians, for example, where we won’t be able to supply defenses or supply deterrence … we will evacuate,” Bar said.
Evacuees would be housed in existing infrastructure, including hotels, schools and Kibbutz guest houses, he said.
The scope of evacuations would depend on the situation, but all told, the plans cover up to 250,000 people who would be moved to safety if there is a conflict on multiple fronts, he said. Israel has a population of about 8.5 million.
Small core groups would stay behind in evacuated areas to maintain vital infrastructure and ensure that communities “function the day after the fighting,” he said.