Israel could withstand any attack involving Syrian chemical weapons, an Israeli general said on Friday, adding it was improbable that Damascus would order such a strike.
The fate of Syria’s reputed chemical arsenal is a focus of international concern. Israel has threatened to go to war to prevent Islamist militants or Hezbollah guerrillas in neighbouring Lebanon from getting such weapons.
Some Israeli officials have also suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, battling a two-year-old uprising against his rule, could launch a chemical strike against the Jewish state in a suicidal gesture of defiance.
But Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, commander of Israel’s home front forces, described the latter scenario as unlikely. “I don’t foresee a chemical war being initiated against us,” he told Haaretz newspaper in an interview.
He said there was a “certain possibility” of chemical arms being used against Israel were they to fall into “the wrong hands” but added: “This would not defeat the State of Israel. We know how to deal with this kind of event and are ready for it.”
Israel’s government has issued gas masks to some 60 percent of its citizens, mostly those living in urban areas likeliest to be targeted in a future war. Rather than equip the rest, Israel should invest in better air raid alerts, Eisenberg said.
Assad’s government has publicly hedged on whether it has chemical weapons, while saying it would only use such an arsenal to fend off foreign foes. Israel is assumed to have the region’s sole nuclear arsenal, a deterrent to non-conventional attack.
In the Haaretz interview, Eisenberg expressed greater worry about Hezbollah’s arsenal, which Israel says includes 60,000 rockets - a more formidable capacity than when the Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored group last fought the Israelis in a 2006 war.
The Lebanese front has been mostly quiet since, but Israel believes Hezbollah guerrillas might lash out in reprisal should it launch a long-threatened strike on Tehran’s nuclear projects.
Among Hezbollah’s rockets are 5,000 with explosive payloads of between 300 kg (660 lb) and 880 kg (1,940 lb) and capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial capital, Haaretz quoted Eisenberg as saying.
“I am preparing for a scenario in which more than 1,000 missiles and rockets are fired at the home front on each day of fighting,” he said, adding that Israel could suffer more casualties in its civilian interior than on its front lines.
Israel’s technologically advanced military includes Iron Dome interceptors that can shoot down most rockets used by Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis have so far deployed five of the interceptors, well short of the 13 they say they would need for nationwide defence.
Eisenberg said that, in any war, he would recommend that key Israeli industrial areas and military bases, rather than civilian centres, get preferential Iron Dome protection. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alistair Lyon)