Long lines in Israel: Syria tensions spur rush for gas masks

Israeli security officials don't think Syrian President Assad will strike Israel, but they are still preparing for a possible chemical weapons attack.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Israelis carry their old gas mask kits in order to replace them with new ones as others leave with new gas mask kits at a distribution point in Tel Aviv Aug. 28, 2013. Thousands of Israelis on Wednesday continued to line up for gas masks or ordered them by phone, spurred on by fears that any Western military response to last week's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria could ensnare their own country in war.

Israelis have overwhelmed the military’s gas mask distribution network after warnings from Iran and Syria that Israel might be targeted for retaliation should the United States attack Syria.

They descended on handout centers and flooded information hot lines as Israel’s security cabinet approved a limited call-up of reservists and the army reportedly deployed more missile interceptor batteries in case of a rocket attack. 

The threats fueled rising anxiety that Israeli cities and towns might be the next target of a possible chemical weapons strike by the Assad regime and evoked memories of the waiting period before the first and second Iraq wars, when Israelis braced for missiles with chemical and biological warheads that never came.

At the time, many Israelis were convinced that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would strike, even though it would risk unleashing a ferocious Israeli reprisal. The same fears exist regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I don’t want to risk my family," says Anton Borodko, a software programmer as he left from a Tel Aviv post office with gas mask kits. "If Assad understands that everything is over for him, he might want to slam the door and have some fun at the end."

With headlines in Israel's top newspapers declaring a "countdown" to an American strike, Israeli authorities are trying to strike a balance between boosting preparedness and reminding the public that the security establishment's prevailing assessment is that Mr. Assad won’t hit Israel.

"There’s no reason to change one’s routine. At the same time, we are preparing for every scenario,’’ said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday after holding a third day of consultations on Syria this week. "The Israel Defense Forces are ready for any threat and prepared to respond forcefully."

But tensions are already rising. A police spokesman said that officers were called in to distribution centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to keep tensions from boiling over. In a Jerusalem mall, dozens of irate Israelis who had waited over an hour stampeded past postal workers in charge of the distribution to claim gas mask kits for their own.

"People lost their temper. They were grabbing at whatever gas masks they could find," says Bryan Choritz, a restaurant owner who had come to get new gas masks for his children. "If the Americans hit them, they’ll hit us. If they can’t reach the American homeland, they’ll go for their allies in the region."

On Wednesday, Iranian military Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted by Iranian news media as saying that "any attack on Syria would burn down Israel." A day before, Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moalem said that US punishment for chemical weapons attack of last week would serve Israeli interests. 

Israeli analysts consider the remarks as bravado and doubt Assad will risk provoking Israel because it would further threaten his grasp on power more than two years into the insurgency. They point out that Syria declined to retaliate against Israel after any of the four alleged Israeli airstrikes inside Syrian territory this year.

"Rhetoric in the Middle East is always out of sync with reality. Assad and his regime are in such a difficult position that it would be irrational and suicidal of them to take military action. There’s a very vicious civil war going on. That’s the logic," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "But there is concern that logic doesn’t work in the Middle East."

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