‘Israel will have to fortify its borders’: Israeli military finally sees climate change as strategic threat

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Who says the Israeli military is out of step with the times? After years of hesitation and more than a few unnecessary delays, it appears as though the Israel Defense Forces is finally beginning to engage seriously with the global climate crisis and its manifold geostrategic implications: how extreme weather affects the military, on one hand, and on the other hand the military’s own contribution to climate change.

Even though these issues are rarely taken together, as part of a comprehensive, worldwide development, separately they are very familiar to the IDF as well as to readers of Haaretz. Here are three simple examples: Syria’s civil war, which began, a decade ago, with protests by farmers in the south of the country against the regime, which refused to compensate them for the loss of farmland as a result of accelerated desertification; Israel Air Force planes at the Hatzerim base that were submerged in water due to faulty deployment for winter rains; environmental damage as a result of training exercises and regular operations, from wildfires in the Golan Heights to fuel spills in the Negev.

In light of the experience and knowledge of other armed forces, the IDF has begun to prepare for more severe consequences of climate change, including within Israel. U.S. Air Force aircraft, for example, are struggling with takeoffs from bases in the Persian Gulf region, since temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) degrade the performance of cargo planes and helicopters. One proposed remedy is to build runways partly underground. The IDF is examining the potential effect of rising sea levels on naval bases on the shore. Further warming could also impair cooling systems in battle tanks and affect their capabilities.

For some months Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi has been coordinating General Staff work on the IDF and climate. The project’s activities have been accelerated under Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. In a discussion on the topic, Kochavi said that the army “understands the problem, the needs and also the opportunities.” Dealing with the climate issues is now divided between units in the planning directorate and the strategic branch. Also to be examined is the possibility of establishing an IDF directorate that will deal with climatic influences, though it’s more likely that a team subordinate to the deputy chief of staff will be placed in charge.

One problems that has been identified is the gap between the weather forecasting capabilities of the Israel Air Force, which have always been crucial due to the immediate impact of the weather on aviation, and those of the ground forces. The death by drowning in a swollen stream of paratrooper Evyatar Yosefi in January 2019 – the incident made headlines again this week, after Kochavi promoted to the rank of colonel and appointed as a brigade commander the same officer he had dismissed as battalion commander for his responsibility in Yosefi’s death – was due in part to a flawed understanding of the limitations imposed by the weather.

“We haven’t done enough in this sphere to date,” a senior officer tells Haaretz. “Attention is being paid now to the climate crisis, but it must be heightened. The question is whether the IDF can make the transition from an organization that is joining the engagement with this, to an innovative organization that takes the lead.”

It all begins with an understanding of the strategic reality. “It’s quite clear that the Middle East will be the second most vulnerable region, after Africa. Countries and communities that lack water and food sources will look for solutions for themselves. That could lead to multiple results – from firing rockets in a demand to receive resources, to a mass movement of refugees and even raids to obtain food and water. One of the things Israel will need to do is to fortify its borders. [At Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai Desert] we built a border fence in the past decade that is difficult to breach. Similar things will happen on the other borders, too.”

The coronavirus pandemic fomented a global crisis in the past two years, of a magnitude that took governments by surprise and without their intelligence organizations having included that scenario in their forecasts. That development obligated the intelligence personnel to take a new look at the way they define national security problems. In this, Israel is joining other Western countries, albeit a bit late. “There is hardly an intelligence organization in the world that hasn’t elevated the climate problem into its top three,” says an IDF source.

The Military Intelligence branch of the General Staff decided to address the issue through a team that is operating within the Gazit Institute, a research body established this year by MI that draws on civilian academic experts from various disciplines.

Gazit plans to focus on complex problems with multiple causes whose analysis involves the use of manifold data. In the past decade the intelligence community has been talking about “black swans,” in the wake of the theory proposed by the economist Nassim Taleb in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” referring to formative events that occur by surprise but whose circumstances can be described in retrospect. The climate crisis, in contrast, is termed a “white rhinoceros” – “You see it, recognize it, you just don’t know when it will start running in your direction.”

In the Middle East, the rhinoceros can effectively be said to be already running. Suffice it to consider the neighboring friendly states. Israel produces close to half its wheat needs, but Egypt imports the whole vast amount of grain that its population consumes and Jordan is totally dependent on food imports – and both are being affected by the rise in world prices due to the pandemic. Egypt almost reached the brink of war with Ethiopia over their dispute concerning the construction of a dam on the Nile. Problems of governance in Lebanon and Syria, where the regime is still murderously quelling the remnants of the civil war, also take the form of a permanent shortfall in water and electricity. MI hopes to develop systems to track more systematically and accurately data of this sort and to analyze its significance and implications.

The growing needs also generate opportunities. This week, within the framework of the Abraham Accords, Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement that will include the erection of a giant solar farm in the Jordanian desert to generate electricity for Israel, in return for the establishment of a water desalination plant that will supply water to Jordan. In contrast, the proposal to ship oil from the UAE to Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat is stirring increasing criticism for fear of the environmental damage it will cause.

The army will also need to look inward, but it will need the support of the state. The relocation of many bases to the Negev enables them to be planned so they will cause minimal environmental damage and will make use of renewable energy. At the same time, they require improved conditions for the soldiers, ranging from larger shaded areas to air conditioning in the rooms. The military systems, notably huge server farms needed to store large amounts of intelligence information, gorge electricity. Part of the solution can come from solar farms, built in the vast spaces inside the bases. Yet, even though the IDF’s move to the Negev is perceived as a national project, beneficial to all concerned, the question will arise as to how military units will be able to train in extreme conditions of heat in the south of the country in the decades ahead.

A climate change protest outside Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s home in September.David Bachar David Bachar

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