Gas masks - a way of Israeli life?

Given the implications, it should be unthinkable. It isn't. It should have felt a bit spooky. It didn't. It should have been deeply disturbing. It wasn't.

Truth be told, when my wife and I went to the army's local Home Front Command (HFC) center the other day to get updated gas mask kits for our family, it was strangely banal. After all, we had been through this before.

Lately, with the prospect of a new US war against Iraq is increasing, Israel is preparing for a possible Iraqi counterattack. As part of this effort, the government is encouraging people to get new civil defense gear (read: gas masks). To that end, the HFC has opened special distribution centers and launched a series of ads with the sobering slogan: "Gas mask kits - They're part of life."

The army now has 32 HFC centers around the country, including three in Jerusalem. The one nearest our home is in the large Malha Shopping Center, in the southern end of the city.

At the mall, the HFC center is virtually invisible. No signs point the way, and only by asking did we find it, relegated to a dusty corner in the mall's huge, dimly lit parking garage.

It's an austere, makeshift operation run by a dozen male and female soldiers. While we stood in line, my mind flashed to a scene exactly 12 years earlier.

In October 1990, on my first full day in Israel after immigrating from France, my wife and I lined up at a Jerusalem community center that was then also serving as an HFC station.

This was just before the Gulf War, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had already invaded Kuwait and threatened to "incinerate" Israel with long-range missiles and unconventional weapons.

So as not to take chances, Jerusalem was equipping the entire population - including newly arrived immigrants - with gas-mask kits. I took the whole thing as my initiation to the hard-boiled reality of life in the Middle East.

During the Gulf War, Mr. Hussein made good on part of his threat when he fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. Fortunately, none contained his feared chemical or biological weapons.

Today, despite a sense of déjà vu, there seems less public angst than before the Gulf War. Citing its newly deployed Arrow anti-ballistic missile system and Iraq's depleted arsenal, the army claims Israel is in much better shape than it was in 1991 vis-à-vis Baghdad.

That's not to suggest that Israelis are complacent. The Israeli Defense Forces are asking people to pick up new gas masks; the Health Ministry wants to vaccinate the population against smallpox; the Education Ministry recently staged emergency drills in schools; and municipalities are fixing up public bomb shelters and preparing contingency plans for mass evacuation ... just in case.

No doubt people in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, which bore the brunt of Iraqi missile attacks in 1991, have more reason for concern than Jerusalemites. Many feel Hussein wouldn't dare fire missiles (with or without non-conventional warheads) at Jerusalem for fear he might score a direct hit on Temple Mount, Islam's third-holiest site, or inadvertently strike nearby Arab neighborhoods.

But a dictator gone desperate is hard to predict.

Our visit to the HFC center proved surprisingly swift, clinical, and free of charge. In less than 10 minutes, we exchanged our aging gas masks for the 2002 model, that includes a special drinking straw and syringes with antidotes for nerve-gas attacks.

I'd like to believe the millions of new gas mask kits now in Israeli homes will never be needed. I'd like to believe one day they will be mere artifacts from another era, like Telex machines. I just wouldn't bank on it.

Far more likely, given the murderous ambitions of Israel's enemies, I'll be back at the local HFC center in a few years trading in my 2002 gas mask for an improved model.

Maybe there really was something to that HFC slogan after all.

Robert Sarner is a senior editor and reporter at Israel Television, an English-language daily newscast.

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