Hot Air Billows in Israel After the Gas-Mask Fiasco

Was distribution even needed? Did Saddam spook a nation?

Put your chin in there. Pull it over your head. Tug on the tabs behind your ears until you feel it's tight."

The small, olive-green plastic mask is sealed around my face. A man in a sweatshirt who looks like a college kid places his hand over the filter that is to protect me from poison gas - just in case Iraq's Saddam Hussein decides to send something nasty Israel's way. I breathe in. With the nozzle blocked, the mask quickly vacuums tight to my cheeks. "That means it's working," he says.

The instructions come rapidly in English and in Hebrew. The Russians in front of me in line and the Romanians behind me, foreign workers taking jobs mostly on construction sites, struggle to understand. I am in the electronics department at the Mashbir department store in Rishon Le-Tsiyon, a city near Tel Aviv. Tucked behind the stereo systems and microwaves sits the desk where anyone can pick up a gas mask for about $60, although Israeli citizens could get them free from the government.

I have to block out the rows of televisions playing the latest Madonna video as I listen closely to instructions about how to adjust the mask. But except for the MTV and the multiple translations, there is quiet and calm.

The scene has been quite different at gas-mask distribution centers around the country, which Israelis poured into during the past three weeks in case the Iraqi leader lashed out at them after an American attack. I wait with eight people in line. At the centers Israelis used, 800 or so were milling around at any given time, shaking their heads at the utter disorganization.

Who is to blame? Is it the government, in the form of the Army's Home Front Command, for not being more efficient? Or the people, who ignored the slips they received in the mail the past few years asking them to exchange outmoded masks from the 1991 Gulf War for new ones? Either way, Israelis are unhappy with the way the crisis was managed and irked that a country that prides itself on courage looked jittery in the face of a highly speculative threat.

When the crisis started, the opposition blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not being prepared. Now, as it appears to be winding down, they blame him for having stirred up public fears. But the questions raised go deeper than that. Some say the messy rush for masks and plastic sheeting to seal windows underscored the persistent lack of planning in Israel - too much reliance on an Israeli clich: yiyeh beseder, it'll be all right.

Perhaps the lackadaisical attitude is a coping mechanism in a country that has seen war in every decade since its founding. But as the nation heads toward its 50th birthday this May, the disarray during the crisis has left Israelis with an uneasy feeling that the country still is acting like an infant, failing to plan ahead and not responding until disaster is staring it straight in the face.

A year and a half ago, Netanyahu's government ordered a halt in the production of gas masks because of what was deemed as a reduced threat of attack. So when the public finally came in to get new masks, there were huge shortages.

Some waited entire days at makeshift distribution centers. "It's ridiculous how disorganized this is, but that's the Israeli way," lamented Ayal Telem, an immigrant from Long Beach, Calif., as he waited outside a Tel Aviv kindergarten.

But the real lack of planning was felt by those for whom no masks were available. Low on the list were foreign residents, who couldn't even buy masks until two weeks into the crisis, and the Arab citizens of Israel, who had no distribution centers in their neighborhoods until this past weekend. Perhaps the biggest embarrassment came when it emerged that foreign residents over the age of 60 seeking to purchase gas masks were told they were above the "age limit" and turned away.

But Yehezkel Dror, a public-policy expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, also points out the government had no easy choices. "The government had a real dilemma," he says. "If [the crisis] had been downplayed, the population might be less traumatized now. But if we were attacked, we'd have been traumatized more. It depends on your taste for risks."

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