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‘The challenge of evacuating patients with needs under fire is double’

Lt. Col. Merav Shabi Sultan of the IDF Homefront Command shares some of the ways Israel is preparing for a war with Hezbollah.

Israeli Navy personnel rehearsing the wartime evacuation of patients in Shlomi, in northern Israel, on June 6, 2023. Credit; IDF Spokespersons Unit.
Israeli Navy personnel rehearsing the wartime evacuation of patients in Shlomi, in northern Israel, on June 6, 2023. Credit; IDF Spokespersons Unit.

The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command and the country’s civilian medical system in recent days rehearsed the wartime evacuation of special-needs patients from northern Israel.

The exercise, which took place in nine separate locations in the Shlomi Regional Council, around a kilometer from the Lebanese border, simulated an IDF directive to evacuate northern communities, according to Lt. Col. Merav Shabi Sultan, Head of the Home Front Command’s Community and Continuous Hospitalization Branch.

The drill, held last week, was part of the IDF’s two-week “Firm Hand” multi-arena war exercise.

Evacuating such patients involves significant challenges, said Sultan. For instance, while people would ordinarily only receive notice from their local municipality about where to gather to board evacuation buses, those with special needs require a succession of coordination steps, presumably under heavy fire.

Hezbollah is expected to rain down unprecedented numbers of rockets and mortar shells on northern regions in the event of a future war.

“When it comes to sick patients, you can’t evacuate if you don’t know whether the place they’re heading to can absorb them physically and care-wise, and has the facilities that the patient has at home,” said Sultan.  

“The bulk of the mission is, as soon as possible, at the beginning of the event,  to actually deal with the evacuation process and enable the IDF  to really concentrate on fighting in the north, rather than concentrating on other missions,” she added.

The IDF’s assessment is that the Lebanese-Hezbollah front will form the most pressing arena in a future conflict, and that communities in the area will have to vacate quickly.

“We are an implementation body of the Health Ministry, and therefore, all the preparations are being conducted jointly with it and other health bodies,” said Sultan, naming district health bureaus and Israel’s health funds as partners in the preparations.

The patients who will require the added assistance are often confined to wheelchairs, or lying in specialized care beds, with some suffering from blindness, deafness, or dependent on guide dogs. They will be moved to pre-selected care homes across the country, particularly in central Israel, in the event of war, with the Northern District Health Bureau overseeing the operation.

During the exercise, Israeli Navy personnel practiced getting the patients down multi-story buildings without elevators.

The evacuation would occur after health funds confirm via phone that the patients are ready to vacate and that transportation companies equipped for special-needs patients have been activated.

“I believe there will be lessons here from the exercise for us, as we prepare ourselves for the real event,” said Sultan.

“A military commander was responsible for the evacuation efforts, and a military force was assigned to the mission,” she said.

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel did not issue evacuation orders in the north, though many residents chose to head south.

The IDF Home Front Command is also observing other conflict zones, like Russia’s war in Ukraine, to help itself prepare for the challenges, while factoring in the intelligence assessments on Hezbollah firepower capabilities.

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