Israelis Jostle for Gas Masks as Syria Tensions Rise

Jittery Public Prepares for Possible U.S. Strike

Tensions Rise: Israelis line up for gas masks in port city of Haifa.
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Tensions Rise: Israelis line up for gas masks in port city of Haifa.

By Ben Sales

Published August 29, 2013.
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(JTA) — Daniela Hayoum arrived at a Tel Aviv post office at 7 a.m. and took a number.

The line of people waiting for gas masks was long and Hayoum stepped away to run errands. She returned in the afternoon to find hundreds of Israelis crowding under a hot sun on the building’s wide steps, some holding umbrellas and others food.

On the street below, medics treated a woman suffering from the heat. On the sidewalk, men sold cold water and bagels. Hayoum began to push her way through.

“They want me to stand for four hours here,” said Hayoum, of nearby Ramat Gan. “I don’t trust the government or the army. They say we’re prepared, but the Home Front Command won’t answer the phone.”

For two days, Israelis have been descending on centers like this to receive free government-issued gas masks in preparation for a possible Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, citing the long lines, the government extended the hours of distribution.

The gas mask frenzy signifies a striking mood change here. An alleged chemical weapons attack last week by the Syrian government and subsequent murmurings of a possible U.S. strike have focused Israeli attention on the Syrian civil war like never before.

U.S. officials had harsh words following the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “moral obscenity” and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of attempting a cover-up after carrying out the attack. The White House reportedly has begun preparations for a strike on Syria in coordination with European allies.

Although the United States appeared to tone down its rhetoric on Thursday, the fear in Israel is that Assad will respond to an American strike by bombing Israel. On Monday, a government official in Iran, which backs the Assad regime, told an official state news agency that “the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

The Israel Defense Forces called up nearly 1,000 reservists this week. Following his third security consultation in as many days – a rare occurrence – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure Israelis.

“There is no reason to change daily routines,” Netanyahu said Wednesday. “At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens.”


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