The Israel gas-mask-go-round

Now that the latest standoff with Saddam Hussein has been defused, we Israelis have to decide whether we put our gas masks away in the back of the closet, or leave them somewhere more accessible for the inevitable next round.

Last Friday, Nov. 13, the newspapers here in Jerusalem calmly reported that there was only an "extremely remote chance" Israel would be the target of Saddam Hussein's whims. On the same front page, was the announcement that hundreds of gas-mask distribution centers were being reopened. The public was urged to exchange gas masks that are eight years old - in other words, of Gulf War vintage. Kid's masks are graded according to age and need to be changed as they grow.

As the TV news showed lines of people at the centers last week, I decided it was time to get mine. I made my way to a school in Kiryat Moshe and stepped out of the sunshine of a fall Friday into the bustle of the serious business of protecting the Israeli public. A platoon of reserve duty soldiers stood fully armed at the gate while a small group of their colleagues unloaded a truck full of huge boxes marked with the size of the masks they contained.

In front of me in line was a middle-aged American couple still on tourist status even though they've been here for two months. The wife implored the guard to allocate masks to her and her husband, even though the kits are only being given to citizens. The Ministry of Tourism has plans in place to rent masks to tourists via hotels should the crisis escalate.

As I stood in line, I watched the maelstrom of activity inside the gymnasium distribution center. A line of computers covered one wall. Huge stacks of boxes were being piled up in the back, and a row of women soldiers manned the desks where the kits were actually distributed.

At the computer station, a harried young woman asked for my ID card. Entering my number into the computer she could determine that I had never been issued a mask before. (All official business in Israel is conducted by the teudat zehut - ID card. For better or worse, the government knows every single office I've been into.) She waved me on to the distribution desk where a woman handed me a bar-coded gas-mask kit with a shoulder strap in a plain, white, nylon bag. I'm sure there were orders to package the masks in bags to avoid the scene of hundreds of people wandering the streets with gas masks slung over their shoulders. The government is clearly trying to avoid the widescale panic which developed during the last Saddam alert in February.

At the demonstration station, a young couple holding a six-month-old baby listened closely as a soldier demonstrated and explained the use of the special baby shield - a clear plastic contraption to cover the torso and head, with a pouch for a baby bottle. It's hard to visualize any baby sitting still in the thing. The father turned to me and said what many of us have been thinking the past few days - this is supposed to make us feel better, but it doesn't. He picked up the baby, the kit, and walked away. The soldier then demonstrated masks to a small group of adults. He calmly reminded us of the symptoms that would necessitate using a syringe of nerve-gas antidote.

I walked back to the bus stop through the streets where people prepared for Shabbat and children played. Riding through the center of town, I watched the usual Friday morning cafe life and banners welcoming a convention of North American Jews to Israel fluttering from the lampposts.

The previous Friday morning was the Mahane Yehuda car bomb attack. In this city where so much can happen in a week, it's almost forgotten already. Last Friday was gas-mask alert time. And this Friday? How long will it be before we unpack these gas masks again?

* Judy Lash Balint is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.

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