Will Israel take military action against Iran to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon?
It is a question that has been asked and answered in dozens of different ways over the last year, with heated discussion of red lines, enrichment percentages, centrifuge output capabilities, bunker-busting bombs and the fuel capacity of Israeli bombers.
The Iranians deny that they even intend to build such a weapon, saying that their nuclear program is a peaceful, civilian operation, aimed at medical research and cheap energy.
But despite the questions, Israel is without a doubt preparing for the possibility of a strike on its cities in case it does decide to hit Iran’s enrichment facilities.
Margaret Warner and her NewsHour team visited a place in Tel Aviv designed to protect against just such a strike: a four-story hospital built almost entirely underground. In case of a conventional, chemical or biological missile attack against the city, the hospital can be totally self sustaining for up to seven days.
The director of the facility, Dr. Gabriel Barbash, told Warner that he is certain the facility will be needed one day.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll have to use this facility,” he said.
His fears are not unfounded. If Israel were to take out Iran’s nuclear development facilities, the response could be fearsome.
From Lebanon in the north, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah could rain rockets on Israeli cities. Down south in Gaza, Hamas — which has already proven their willingness to fire on Israeli, even into Tel Aviv — could also mobilize.
Iran “will not be like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad,” said former Israeli Gen. Amos Yadlin in an interview with Warner. Yadlin was referring to two other incidents where Israel neutralized budding nuclear programs in their neighborhood. The first, in 1981, was when Israeli jets took out a nuclear reactor at Osirak. Yadlin, then a young pilot, flew a fighter jet on that mission. The second, was in 2007, when when the Israeli air force again destroyed a nuclear reactor, this one in Syria. Neither Arab country mounted a response, but Yadlin says that Iran won’t remain quiet.
Iran “will retaliate,” he said. “No doubt about it. They’ve (been) preparing for it for the last five, six, seven years.”
That — in the eyes of the Israeli government — is reason enough for an underground hospital.
When walking through the hospital, you might not notice that it is a hospital at all. That’s because it’s currently being used as an underground parking garage, serving a full-size, above-ground hospital directly overhead.
But in a matter of 24 hours, said Barbash, hundreds of beds can be wheeled into place. Above each bed is a box, with sockets that can help feed fluids and medicines into patients.
Each section of the hospital is color-coded by ward. For now, those colors help drivers remember where they parked.
Some wards have technologies built-in to treat specific ailments. The dialysis center has cabinets along the wall next to where the beds will be, for the machines that cycle blood in and out of patients.
At the entrance to the hospital is a sealed rinse room, where victims of a chemical or biological weapons attack can be cleaned off, without contaminating others. The hospital also has a separate ventilation system, with filters and ducts, ensuring the air inside the facility is clean.
Topside, Barbash said that the above-ground hospital also has a few wards, such as the neo-natal unit, that are as secure as the underground rooms.
The facility, called the Sammy Ofer Underground Emergency Hospital, was completed in 2010 at a cost of $45 million. There is one other like it in Israel and a third is currently under construction.
These secure hospitals are far from the only precaution the Israeli government is taking to protect civilians from possible attacks.
When Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the first Gulf War, the Israeli building code was changed, requiring every new home to have a “safe room,” where residents can take shelter during an attack.
We visited a home in a Tel Aviv suburb where a safe room was nearing completion. Shortly after we arrived, the contractor, Dani Avram, who specializes in building these rooms, was literally blowing smoke around the inside of the safe room to make sure that the seal was tight.
The room has a filtration system to protect against chemical weapons, and the door, which led to a recreation room, appeared to be about three inches thick.
Puzzles and other games piled up in a “safe room”. Photo by P.J. Tobia/NewsHour.
When we visited, the safe room was piled with children’s toys as well as stacks upon stacks of board games. A family with young children were already living in the house, and if forced to spend any length of time in the safe-room, they’d at least be well occupied.
Still, the mother of the house, who did not want to be identified or photographed was skeptical of the safe room’s utility.
“It’s all bulls*,” she said, holding her small, red-haired toddler in her arms. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
But given the speed with which some analysts say Iran’s nuclear program is progressing, the government here appears to be taking few chances.
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