Underneath the plaza outside Israel's Habima national theatre, Israel has put the finishing touches on a new gathering place that it hopes will never host a crowd — the country's most advanced public underground bomb shelter.
The shelter, four stories underground and with space for 1,600 people, is usually a parking lot. It is also part of Tel Aviv's elaborate civil defence infrastructure. City officials have been beefing up shelters and emergency services in recent months at a time of rising tensions with Iran and militant groups in the Gaza Strip.
Recent talk of conflict with Iran has given the safety measures extra relevance. Officials say the timing is coincidental. Israel is under constant threat from hostile groups on its northern and southern frontiers. Security forces run frequent safety drills, cities are equipped with public air-raid shelters, and new apartments must have bombproof rooms.
Israeli leaders have hinted they may mount a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, even as American military leaders urge Israel to wait for tough economic sanctions to take effect.
Should Israel attack, Iran has promised a punishing counterstrike. Iran has missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel. It also supports anti-Israel militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in the past. Israel's military intelligence chief recently estimated that the country's enemies have 200,000 rockets and missiles aimed at the Jewish state.
As the country's cultural and economic centre, Tel Aviv is an attractive target. About two million people live here and in the surrounding cities.
Tel Aviv city councilman Moshe Tiomkin cautioned that should Iran strike Tel Aviv, the results will be severe. The last time the city faced direct rocket fire was in 1991, when Iraq launched rockets at the coastal metropolis.
“I believe this time we are not talking about 40 rockets,” Tiomkin said. “It would be far, far more.”
At Habima, the bomb shelter couples as the theatre's new parking lot. In little time, the facility can be sealed and transformed into a massive bomb shelter.
The shelter's entrance is part of the pavement in the plaza outside the theatre. The doors slide open automatically, and metal handrails pop up out of the ground above a long staircase. If needed, 1,600 people could climb down the stairwell into the four subterranean floors, according to the Ahuzot Hahof company that manages the parking lot and shelter for the municipality. The shelter has filters to keep air breathable in the event of a chemical attack. The shelter was built as part of renovation of the theatre completed late last year. Roi Flyshman, spokesman for the government's civil defence ministry, said it is “very advanced” and could serve as a blueprint for others.
“A lot of parking lots in the country can become shelters, and we want to copy from Habima to other places,” he said.
The shelter is part of the city's network of shelters that can give cover to 250,000 people.
In Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center, director-general Gabi Barbash said an underground parking lot can be transformed into an emergency ward with up to 1,000 beds in 48 hours. The ward has oxygen tanks, electricity and water built into the walls that make it easy to convert to medical use, including an operating room. The hospital, built a year ago, can function for seven days. Despite the preparations, few citizens feel a sense of alarm. Sidewalk cafes were filled with young Israelis enjoying the mild, winter sun.
“Somewhere, of course, it affects us, but it's not something we think about daily,” said Claudia Hunter, a tour guide from Jerusalem who was walking near the theatre.
Lawmaker Daniel Ben Simon dismissed the security talk as a government scare campaign that “nearly recalls Dr. Strangelove.”