JERUSALEM — AS Israel starts distributing gas masks to its entire population next week, officials are trying hard not to lend credence to the inevitable conclusion: that the move is directly related to developments in the Gulf region. ``The distribution of gas masks in no way whatsoever constitutes a change to an emergency status,'' an Army spokesman says. ``The purpose of this action is to transfer the [masks and chemical protection] kits to the citizens' homes in order to shorten the time of distribution, should a need arise.''
Israel has experimented with distribution programs for over a year, but the outbreak of the Gulf crisis turned a civil defense issue into a heated public debate. In August, popular anxiety led to a run on commercially available gas masks.
The government delayed a decision. To give in to popular pressure, it was thought, could cause panic, and send the wrong signals to Baghdad, suggesting that Israel was preparing for war. Then late last month, the defense establishment suddenly dropped objections after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed to attack Israel, among other targets, if his country was strangled by a United Nations trade blockade.
Distribution to Israel's 4.75 million people will take weeks, even months, and detailed plans have yet to be announced.
The Army says distribution will include Palestinians in the occupied territories, once sufficient gas masks have been purchased. Asked if there was not a danger that Palestinians might don gas masks to protect themselves from the tear gas routinely used by the security forces to break up demonstrations, the spokesman said that the Army's concern was simply ``to provide security for the people who live under our control.''
The 1.75 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip will have to buy their gas masks. Israelis have already paid for theirs through social security payments.
But Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer on the board of trustees of Al-Haq, a human rights organization based in the West Bank, is critical of the plan.
``By asking Palestinians to buy their gas masks, they're not fulfilling their obligations under international law,'' he says, adding that Palestinians are already expected to pay a wide range of taxes and fees to the Army. A lack of proper accounting means Palestinians are not sure what they are paying for, he says. ``We may have paid for the gas masks 20 times over.''