Where Did All Those Concrete Pipes in Israel Come From? Are They Good Bomb Shelters?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 20 2012 6:38 PM

Rockets! Quick, Jump Into This Water Main.

Why are Israelis taking cover inside concrete pipes?

Israelis take cover in a large concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter after a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip.
Israelis take cover in a large concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter after a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip on Thursday in Nitzan, Israel

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

As rockets sailed into Israel from Gaza during the past week, residents were shown seeking shelter in huge concrete pipes, particularly in the southern town of Nitzan. Where did all those tubes come from, and how much protection do they offer from airstrikes?

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Israel’s Home Front Command distributed the thick sewer pipes in 2008 and 2009 as a makeshift measure throughout cities along the Gaza border when missile attacks increased during Operation Cast Lead. They’ve sat there ever since. At the time, a population of displaced people in the area were living in flimsy caravillas and required immediate protection. Placed in every cul-de-sac in the villages of Beersheva and Nitzan, the pipes still did little to reassure civilians who had relocated there from Gush Katif. One blogger describes how she felt when reserve soldiers visited to inform her that the large water conduits were on the way:

The two young men … informed me that the Home Front Command was planning on bringing in large sewer pipes. Yes, you read that correctly, sewer pipes, made of thick concrete, for our protection. …When the sirens wail, we are to run outside, crawl into our very own sewer pipe and wait five minutes, or at least until we hear the explosion. Then we crawl out and return to our cardboard homes. … I laugh as I write this. I have tears in my eyes as I write this.

The pipes are less than ideal in providing protection because the large openings at either end leave residents partly exposed. While they do not protect civilians from a direct hit, at least they can block flying shrapnel and absorb some of the shock waves from a peripheral attack. They lack the provisions and cleanliness of more permanent public shelters, but their upkeep proves inexpensive and some even contain benches. And they are easy to replace.

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The Home Front Command, a regional branch of the IDF established in 1992 after the Gulf War to shield civilians from violent attack, is responsible for issuing guidelines about how to react to the threat of a rocket or mortar strike and for coordinating volunteer responses such as emergency and rescue team activity where missiles have landed. The command also opens and staffs child care centers, helps out at hospitals, transports supplies, and reinforces bomb shelters. Its work in the south of Israel is important because most residents there have at best one minute—and as little as 15 seconds—to take cover between the sounding of a siren and the impact of a rocket.

The safest place to wait out a rocket attack is in a reinforced private security room called a Merkhav Mugan (Mamad, for short). The next best alternative is a traditional underground bomb shelter, preferably with a metal door and no windows. In 1951, an Israeli civil-defense law mandated that all homes, places of employment, schools, commercial areas, and neighborhoods install some sort of safe room. Compliance with the regulation is high, although getting residents to actually enter their shelters proves more complicated, according to one Homeland Protection official. The Home Front Command has worked to fortify bus stops and schools with explosive-proof materials, especially in vulnerable cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon. One school in Sderot famously boasts a playground of steel-reinforced concrete tunnels that have been painted to resemble caterpillars.

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Explainer thanks Amos N. Guiora, author and professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law; and Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.