The Home Front Command extended the opening hours of gas mask distribution points in key cities Thursday, a day after centers were overwhelmed by a surge in demand from civilians wanting to protect themselves against a possible chemical weapons attack from Syria.
In an announcement on its website on Thursday, the command said that both the Haifa and Tel Aviv distribution centers increased their hours of operation by four hours and would be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Previously both centers had closed at 3 p.m.
Thursday morning saw hundreds of Israeli queuing up at distribution points around the country, even before centers opened their doors. People have complained of hours-long waits and shortages of kits, as growing numbers of citizens flooded post offices and IDF Home Front Command distribution centers ahead of an expected US strike on Syria.
Many reported giving up and leaving the centers without masks, which must be replaced every 15 or so years, depending on the model.
However, IDF officials say there are no plans to open more distribution centers, Israel Radio reported.
While officials remain adamant any attack on Israel is unlikely, the IDF deployed additional Iron Dome batteries in the north Wednesday, and was said to be readying the Arrow short-range rocket defense system and Patriot anti-missile array for use on the northern front.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF asked Israelis to remain calm.
“There is no reason to change our routine,” Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday afternoon after holding a security assessment on the Syrian situation at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. “We are preparing for every eventuality. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond with force to any attempt to harm Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu added.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit offered much the same message. In a statement Wednesday, it called on the public to remain calm and, “despite the possible American strike in Syria,” insisted “there is no reason to change our routine. Any change in [the army's] instructions will be posted as necessary, and will be brought to the attention of every citizen using the broadest possible distribution methods.”
Many of those who tried to obtain gas masks reported waiting times Wednesday that reached several hours.
“It’s crazy what’s happening. There are women, babies, police, it’s a mess here,” one man told Israel Radio at a distribution center in Haifa. “They’re sending people into a panic, but there’s only one center in the entire north of the country. People came from Nahariya,” roughly an hour away.
The situation was no better in the south. The IDF distribution centers in Beersheba were closed Wednesday, with the Home Front Command asking citizens to turn to post offices, which are responsible for distribution, for their gas mask kits.
But an Israel Radio reporter who went to a post office in Beersheba was told there were no more masks, and that he should travel to Ashdod, a city over an hour’s drive away, to obtain a kit.
The national telephone hotline for gas mask distribution, at emergency phone number 104, saw waiting times of over 40 minutes on Wednesday afternoon. The Postal Service promised to increase the staff at the hotline.
MK Eli Yishai (Shas), chair of the Knesset Subcommittee for Home Front Preparedness, suggested Wednesday that the difficulties in gas mask distribution might reflect other problems in preparedness for possible attacks on the Israeli home front.
“The Israeli factories producing gas mask kits will be closed by October 2014 because of the Finance Ministry,” he charged, referring to planned cuts to the home front preparedness budget.
Yishai noted that the government had spent some NIS 200 million ($55 million) annually on the home front, but said Israel “must spend NIS 350 million to reach maximum preparedness.”
His Shas party Wednesday also called on the country to make more masks available for bearded men, who need a special model that fits over the whole head. The IDF says those models are reserved for Israelis with special needs.
The Postal Service has published an English-language informational website about gas mask kits and how they can be obtained, as well as a dedicated Hebrew-language page with a constantly updating list of distribution center schedules and locations.
As the schedules can change, the Home Front Command has recommended calling 104 to confirm that a distribution center is open and operational before arriving.
The Postal Service also runs a nationwide home delivery service for gas masks that carries a fee of NIS 25-40 per household. It can be reached at *2237 or 03-713-3830.
In Jerusalem, the distribution center is at the Shmuel HaNavi Community Center located at Magen HaElef 3. It is open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., until September 3.
In Haifa, the center is at the Romema Sports Center, 69 Pikah Way, above the post office. The distribution center will remain open Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In Maaleh Adumim, the center is at Adumim Mall, at the entrance level inside Shalom Gate. It is open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., through August 29.
In Beit Shemesh, at BIG FASHION Mall, Yigal Alon 3. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., through August 29.
In Tel Aviv, at the Beit Hamiyun Post Office, Derech HaHagana 137. It is open Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., until September 3.