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Israel’s Vital New Defense Weapon: An Underground Blood Bank

Slated to open in 2020, Israel's National Blood Services Center is a high-tech insurance policy to ward against existential threats such as chemical attacks.

Israel’s Vital New Defense Weapon: An Underground Blood Bank
Fabiana Magrì

RAMLA — Half an hour's drive from Tel Aviv, bulldozers and excavators are hard at work on a new high-tech facility that will become a centerpiece of Israel"s national defense strategy. Located in the central city of Ramla, the Israeli National Blood Services Center will store blood for the country's growing population and serve as an underground bunker in case of a hostile attack.

In her office at the Tel Aviv headquarters of Magen David Adom (MDA), the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, the renowned hematologist Eilat Shinar monitors the progress on a live satellite feed of the construction site. "We need to dig 15 meters into the ground, but the digging is almost done," she says. "The new facility will be at the vanguard of blood banks around the world."

In the eyes of Israel's security apparatus, the Middle East is a cyclone and Israel is in the eye of the storm, surrounded by threats on all sides: Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the west, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Syria to the east. They want the country to be ready for every scenario, from land wars to natural disasters. That includes the possibility of missiles tipped with chemical warheads, which has emerged as a threat since Syria's chemical weapons sites were exposed to the chaos of civil war and Hezbollah acquired sophisticated Fateh-110 missiles from Iran.

The center's primary goal will be to keep Israel's population safe in the event of an emergency. After the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000, the MDA urged the country's authorities — particularly the army, the civil defense force, and the Health and Defense ministries — to build adequate infrastructure to protect civilians in a range of emergency situations. Wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and with Hamas in 2008, 2012, and 2014 gave the plan more urgency, along with a steady 2% annual rise in Israel's population.

We haven't been losing any time.

According to Israel's national statistics agency, the country's population could hit 10 million before the scheduled inauguration of the National Blood Services Center in 2020. The MDA's current facility was built in the 1980s when the agency provided only 175,000 units of blood a year, compared to the 250,000 units it must procure today. The new center will be able to increase its capacity to half a million units within its first 30 years of operation when Israel's population is projected to reach 20 million.

Israel must also contend with rising numbers of tourists, which the MDA is committed to protect during their stay. "We haven't been losing any time," says Shinar. "We visited similar facilities around the world to learn from them and collect data, including the UK, US, Australia, and Italy."

Designed by Mochly Eldar Architects, an architectural firm that specializes in public healthcare and industrial projects, the National Blood Services Center will serve two functions. The state-of-the-art blood bank will double as an armored underground bunker that can secure the high-tech laboratories in the event of an attack on Israel. Out of a total cost of $130 million, the MDA has raised $90 million so far, drawing from a variety of donors at home and around the globe.

Photo: Magen David Adom/Facebook

"The building was designed with sustainability in mind, and will provide a safer home for our technologies," says Shinar. "The floors above ground will house an auditorium, lecture halls, offices, blood donor rooms, and a cafeteria, but they can be shut down and abandoned during an emergency."

The most vital labs will be built underground, where work can continue uninterrupted even if a catastrophe were to occur. That includes labs for blood analysis, communications and logistical support for ambulances, and the facility's core asset: the blood bank.

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