Israel has reorganized its civil defense rescue forces, forming four military search and rescue battalions into a single brigade. Israel first organized a search and rescue battalion in the early 1990s, after suffering Iraqi SCUD missile attacks during the 1991 Gulf War. The new battalion was separate from the existing combat search and rescue units that went out to get pilots or troops stranded in enemy territory.
The Israeli military believed that such missile attacks, in addition to shorter range rocket attacks from militant ground in neighboring countries, would be a growing threat and that more search and rescue forces would be needed. Since then, members of these Israeli search and rescue forces have often gone overseas to help rescuing civilians trapped by earthquakes. At home the search and rescue troops have had less to do but there is a need to prepare for a major attack.
Israel was reminded of this threat in 2006, when Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets from southern Lebanon. This attack killed 44 civilians and a dozen or so soldiers, as well as wounding over 1,400. The rockets also damaged hundreds of structures and forced over a million Israelis to endure four weeks of periodically running for bomb shelters. While the Israeli deaths were about one civilian per hundred rockets, there was a lot of work for the search and rescue teams. The casualties declined as the campaign went on, because the rocket launch teams were depleted and under more pressure from the Israelis. In the last day of the campaign, 250 rockets were fired and killed only one Israeli. But until the end there was the risk of large numbers of civilians being trapped in damaged buildings. The 2006 experience led Israel to keep tabs on the missile and rocket forces its enemies possessed and what kind of damage they could do and adjust the size of their civil defense efforts accordingly.
Before Syria fell into civil war in 2011, Israel estimated that there would be as many as 3,300 Israeli casualties (including up to 200 dead) if Syria tried to use its long range missiles and explosive warheads against Israel. If the Syrians used chemical warheads, Israeli casualties could be as high as 16,000. Over 200,000 Israelis would be left homeless, and it was believed about a 100,000 would seek to leave the country. The search and rescue troops would be busy dealing with people trapped in damaged buildings and treating those suffering from chemical weapons, as well as the many people seeking to leave damaged neighborhoods.
While the Syrian threat is diminished for the moment by the civil war, Hezbollah still has over 20,000 rockets in southern Lebanon and Hamas has about half that number in Gaza. There is still the threat of long range missiles coming from Iran. This is forcing Israel to constantly rethink its approach to dealing with the impact all this will have on the civilian population. This includes encouraging civilians to incorporate reinforced “safe rooms” in new homes and to take care of the new gas masks recently distributed. But when the rockets do start falling, the search and rescue brigade is expected to have all the right answers and the right moves to deal with the aftermath.