During World War I — the first war in modern history that included the widespread use of chemical weapons — 500 soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Division exhibited debilitating symptoms of gas exposure: chest pain, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision. It was later discovered that the division had never been exposed to a chemical agent. The press quickly dubbed the phenomenon “gas mania.”

Seventy years later, during the six-week Iran-Iraq War of the Cities of 1988, at least 100,000 (some estimate as many as 1.5 million) residents fled Tehran in response to Saddam Hussein’s threat to load chemical warheads onto the Scud missiles that were hitting the Iranian capital.

In 1991, during the Gulf War, nine people were killed as a result of missile attacks on Israel, seven of whom died by suffocating inside their gas masks when they failed to release the airtight cap. Twenty-seven percent of all injuries during this time were the result of unnecessary atropine injections.

“The punchline in all these events, of course, is that chemical weapons weren’t even used. Just the rumor — the threat — of chemical weapons was enough to cause something of that magnitude,” said Glenn Sullivan, a psychologist who co-authored a book on the psychology of terrorism.

But research also suggests that Israelis are particularly adept at habituating to recurring stressors when compared to people of other nations.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that Israelis who lived through 18 months of terrorism during the Second Intifada suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at about the same rate as New Yorkers immediately after 9/11. However, the overall rates of PTSD in Israel during the Second Intifada were lower than in New York one and two months following the attack.

Alleged victims of a Syrian chemical attack seen in a screen capture from a YouTube video uploaded by Syrian rebels on Saturday, December 8, 2012

Alleged victims of a Syrian chemical attack seen in a screen capture from a YouTube video uploaded by Syrian rebels on Saturday, December 8, 2012

As the Assad regime continues to lose control in Syria, reports of the use of chemical weapons there multiply, and rebel factions inch closer to the country’s stores of nerve agents and mustard gas, Israel is closely monitoring the status of these weapons. The concern is twofold: first, that the chemical weapons may fall into the hands of Hezbollah and other terror groups; second, that Assad himself might resort to using them against Israel in a last-ditch effort to draw it into war and thus somehow maintain power. Once again, Israel’s capacity for resilience in the face of attack may become relevant, even as its leaders vow military intervention if necessary to prevent any chemical weapons attack.

‘When the first two alarms went off, we went to the shelters and put on our gas masks. After the first two alarms, though, the guys would sit on the roof and try to see what was happening’

“What we saw in the United States [right after 9/11] was a cultural context in which people weren’t expecting or prepared for an attack on American soil. American wars are fought on foreign soil,” said Professor Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University, who worked on the JAMA study and has written a book about the Israeli response to the Gulf War. “In Israel, our holidays and traditions act as reminder of our history of war and persecution. This creates a paradox in society — on one hand, we don’t feel very safe, but on the other, it inoculates us to bad events when they do occur.”

Rapid habituation was also evident in Israel during the Gulf War. Emergency room visits for injuries caused by stress dropped dramatically as the war continued. “The myth of panic that was propagated by politicians in the early ’90s never actually happened. The government was expecting a dramatic reaction, but Israelis reacted rather calmly for the most part,” says Solomon.

Ruined homes in Ramat Gan after a Scud attack during the Gulf War, January 25, 1991. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ruined homes in Ramat Gan after a Scud attack during the Gulf War, January 25, 1991. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“The real worry during the Gulf War was after the first siren,” says Sharon Porat, who was studying at Hebrew University and raising two young children during the Gulf War. “But then, we felt like we knew what we were into and realized that [Saddam Hussein] either didn’t have the chemical ability or wouldn’t use it. Then, people really calmed down. In the later weeks, I remember studying with a classmate and an alarm went off. We weren’t with the kids, so neither of us even bothered to get up.”

Nir Geva, a veterinarian who lives in Tel Aviv, was 17 and living near Haifa at the time. “When the first two alarms went off, we went to the shelters and put on our gas masks and everything. After the first two alarms, though, the guys would sit on the roof and try to see what was happening.”

Gas mask kits, first distributed in Israel in 1990 (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)

Gas mask kits, first distributed in Israel in 1990 (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)

This attitude also applied to Israel’s newest citizens. Neil Gillman of the Jewish Agency emphasized that increased violence during the Gulf War did not deter new olim from immigrating to Israel, despite the fact that the agency was greeting new immigrants with instructions to pick up gas masks. “Olim have continued to come under some sort of threat throughout our history — even when Saddam Hussein was threatening to unload chemical weapons onto Israel,” he said.

‘Unfortunately, this is not sci-fi. We don’t know who will take control of Syria’s chemical weapons in a couple of months when the Assad regime collapses’

Solomon blames the government for the deaths that did occur because of psychological stress during the Gulf War. “The government didn’t want people to panic, so they gave instructions not to open their defense kits until they were needed. This was a mistake. Ironically, when it came time to use their gas masks, people who did panic didn’t know how to use them correctly,” she said.

According to Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, the current government is acting in a more measured and responsible manner, despite growing fears with regard to Syria. “We no longer have ministers competing to raise the level of panic. And I think there is a quiet maturity among the Israeli public.”

With recent developments in North Korea and ongoing threats from Iran, Steinberg is also quick to make a comparison to nuclear weapons. “As terrifying as nonconventional weapons are, these [weapons in Syria] are not weapons of mass destruction in the way that nuclear weapons are.”

Menahem Fisher, an 86-year-old ex-paratrooper who was born in Israel, agrees. “Nuclear is the worst thing in the world. If Iran uses nuclear weapons it will create a chain reaction. This is what we need to focus on.” Fisher adds that he does not believe Iran will deploy a nuclear weapon.

Israelis’ ability to deal well with tough situations might also explain why they are repeatedly ranked among the happiest people living in Western countries, despite constant conflict in the region. A recent study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Israel ranked high on its happiness scale, though it ranked poorly on several other measures, including housing, security, and income.

Even if the focus here turns to Iran and the nuclear threat, as Steinberg and others suggest it should, the same mental toughness that protects the Israeli public from panic in the face of chemical weapons might serve well to thwart a mass panic in response to a credible nuclear threat.

“Unfortunately, this is not sci-fi. We don’t know who will take control of Syria’s chemical weapons in a couple of months when the Assad regime collapses. But we push it out of our minds and get on with daily life,” said Geva. “As far as the nuclear threat is concerned, if this is going to be the case, well, ma la’asot,” he said, with apparently typical Israeli calm. “What can you do?”