TEL AVIV, Israel, April 9 (UPI) -- Amid Israel's scramble to develop weapons to counter the threat of a massive missile bombardment by Iran, Syria and their proxies, top officials are playing a macabre numbers game about how many fatalities the Jewish state might suffer.
Israeli military doctrine has long been to take the offensive whenever possible and keep the fighting well away from the cities and towns of the Jewish state.
The age of the missile has changed that. Missiles can vault over border defenses and hit civilians with destructive power that the home front has never had to endure in any of Israel's wars since 1948.
For the last couple of years, particularly since Binyamin Netanyahu began his second stint as prime minister, the civilian population has been told an Israeli assault on Iran's nuclear program is possible and that they should brace for major retaliatory strikes.
The warnings have become increasingly strident in recent months, amid civil defense exercises reminiscent of the Cold War nuclear alarm drills in U.S. cities in the 1950s, distribution of gas masks and bomb shelter construction.
The number of missiles, of all calibers, supposedly in the hands of Iran, Syria and their proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, has risen astronomically -- from 10,000 to at least 100,000, theoretically enough to obliterate swathes of urban Israel.
The military is working on the assumption there will be a sustained missile bombardment, lasting several weeks.
It's not clear whether that would end when the Iranians and their allies simply ran out of missiles or when the Israeli air force succeeded in eliminating their launch sites, an unlikely eventuality.
Either way, speculation has inevitably focused on the human losses the envisioned conflagration would entail.
While playing up the Iranian threat in a bid to secure popular support for pre-emptive strikes, which the rest of the world says would ignite a massively destructive regional war, Israeli leaders have shown great dexterity in seeking to downplay the expected Israeli casualty toll.
The number of missiles, including hundreds of long-range ballistic weapons with warheads containing up to a half-ton of high explosive, suggests casualties running in the thousands.
Most missiles aren't particularly accurate. They're mostly known as "area weapons" -- their destructive power lies in firing large numbers into a given area, rather than pinpointing small, strategic targets.
In November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former general who's Israel's most decorated war hero and a hard-line advocate of hammering Iran, suggested the death toll from a sustained bombardment would be less than 500.
That seemed to be acceptable to the military establishment. Barak declared that fears of mass casualties were unfounded.
"There's no chance in such a situation for 500,000 killed, not 5,000 or even 500 killed," he asserted.
Israel's Channel 10 television reported Monday that military officials told Netanyahu's inner security Cabinet at a briefing that there would be less than 300 killed in a three-week missile assault in a multi-front war.
"The roulette wheel continues to spin and the ball falls into a different numbered slot every time," commentator Aner Shalev observed dryly in the liberal Haaretz daily Monday.
"It seems like a 40 percent discount that we probably got for Passover. But when one reads the fine print, one cannot remain unalarmed.
"Barak predicts fewer than 500 deaths (if everyone runs for shelter), whereas the analysts foresee at least 300," Shalev wrote.
"Whereas Barak's estimate may refer to 100 deaths, the new estimate allows for 1,000, 10,000 or more -- any number that's higher than 300 and there are plenty of them."
Shalev and others pointed to serious shortcomings in the government's preparations to protect Israelis in the event of a cataclysmic conflict in which Tel Aviv, Israel's major urban area and its economic heart, would be a prime target.
The right-leaning Jerusalem Post cited opposition lawmaker Zeev Bielski, chairman of the parliamentary panel on home defense who warned in February that the civil defense network is woefully inadequate.
Almost one-in-four Israelis lack access to bomb shelters, while only a similar number has been equipped with gas masks.
"Are we prepared for war? No," Bielski said. "Things are moving too slowly and we're wasting very precious time."
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