In any case, critics say the systems and other big-ticket equipment should not take priority over what is known here as “passive defense.” Those measures, including gas masks and bomb shelters, should come first, as should as well as emergency response plans, said Rubin, who once led the Arrow program.
“It’s going to be a very good defense for the people of Israel, but unfortunately it’s not 100 percent,” Ze’ev Bielski, a lawmaker who chairs the parliamentary subcommittee on home-front defense, said of the missile shields.
Military and defense officials have said little to temper the concerns.
An official in the ministry of home-front defense, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Israel has made strides in coordinating responses for all sorts of potential emergencies, from earthquakes to war. But exigency has not been reflected in budgets, the official said.
“We need to change the way of thinking in Israel about this kind of thing,” the official said.
In a nation that views itself as one large family, even a small number of civilian deaths would be viewed as disastrous, Bielski said.
But there is little sense of urgency. A government plan to provide homeowners incentives to build bomb shelters has fizzled, leaving 24 percent of the population without access to shelters, and funding for gas masks is short by nearly $300 million, Bielski said. Itay Baron, deputy director general of one of the nation’s two gas mask factories, said the plant is operating at 7 percent capacity and has laid off one-third of its workers in the past three months.
Amid furious speculation about the imminence of an Israeli strike, some view those data points as evidence that Netanyahu’s crescendoing war talk is largely bluster. Other officials and analysts reject that but grant that they might be a barometer of Israeli confidence that Iranian retaliation would be minimal. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently asserted that there could be fewer than 500 Israeli civilian casualties “if people stay in their homes.”
Against that backdrop, some Israelis are moving to protect themselves. After the Lebanon war, the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv — not far from a presumed missile target, Israel’s military headquarters — decided to build an underground parking lot that can be converted to a 700-bed hospital in case of war. It has an air filtration system to protect patients from chemical attack. Hospital staffers have been assigned roles as “commanders,” to control chaos, said hospital director Gabriel I. Barbash.
The $45 million cost was mostly privately funded, Barbash said.
“The Israeli government’s long-term planning is deficient,” he said. “We had to take the initiative.”
At the Ace store, people lined up to collect cardboard boxes containing gas masks available in three sizes: adult, child and infant. In a video screening on a nearby television, demonstrators buckled a baby into what looked like a tiny plastic space suit.
Dror Bahar, a jovial 40-year-old video editor who said he had recently moved to a house with a safe room, was there to get one for his 8-month-old daughter. Netanyahu and Barak are “reasonable,” he said, and would not rush into war. Yet he spoke as if the prospect were inevitable.
No matter who carries out a strike on Iran, he said, “Israel is going to be hit anyway.”
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.