In a small shopping mall in southern Jerusalem, the effects of a recent flurry of apocalyptic media reports were visible a few steps from the Delta underwear store and a Chinese massage stand: A crush of more than 100 people waiting for a harried postal worker to hand them a brown cardboard box with a gas mask inside.
Authorities have been urging Israelis to pick up gas masks for several months, with little apparent effect; two weeks ago, residents coming to the distribution point at the Hadar Mall did not have to stand on line at all. On Thursday, however, a crowd of Jerusalemites – Arabs, Jews, a few men in black hats, the elderly, parents with young children – clutched yellow number stubs and waited for more than an hour to get the kits that are meant to protect them in case of a chemical or biological attack.
Daniel Hasson, a resident of the nearby neighborhood of Talpiot, carried his small daughter as he waited. The crowd, he said, was partially due to “hype in the media.”
“I’m standing in line to get a gas mask because I have to, but I have nothing against the Iranian or Syrian people,” Hasson said.
“Israelis want to make sure that they have what they need and they don’t want to wait for the last minute, because if things get serious the crowds will be too big,” he said. “It’s like avoiding the rush by getting your Christmas shopping done in August.”
The drip of stories hinting at impending war with Iran has continued for several years but reached an unprecedented pitch in the past week. The new reports appeared to be coming from the highest echelons of the government. A long prime-time report aired Friday night on Channel 2, the country’s most widely watched station, made it seem that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities was imminent. A front-page interview the same day in Haaretz with an unidentified senior official who was clearly Ehud Barak, the defense minister, delivered the same message.
Adding to the perceived dangers is the unraveling of Syria, home to a considerable stockpile of chemical weapons and an unknown but clearly growing number of jihadi groups who might be inclined to use them. Taken together, those fears appear to have penetrated Israelis’ highly developed shell of apathy and cynicism and spurred them to action — even if that action has not been to dig graves in parks, as they famously did before the Six Day War, but rather just to drive to an air-conditioned mall and wait on line for kits that most seem to assume they will never use and which won’t particularly help them if they do.
Earlier this week, the official in charge of gas mask distribution told Channel 10 TV that there had been a “100 percent increase” in the number of masks being handed out. A spokesperson for the Israeli military said Thursday that 4.2 million kits had been distributed since 2010, covering 45 percent of Israel’s population. When the project ends 57 percent of Israelis will have kits, the military said.
Building engineers have also reported a sharp spike in requests for bomb shelter inspections.
On Tuesday, a neighbor emailed retired physician Robert Goldstein, 63, to suggest they make sure their apartment building’s bomb shelter was in order. “That sparked my interest,” Goldstein said. Anecdotal evidence indicates that similar conversations – about emergency food stocks, or about finally disposing of the neighbors’ castaway furniture that has cluttered the communal shelter for years – have been taking place with some frequency in homes across the country in the last week or two.
Though he believes there will be no strike against Iran before the US elections in November, Goldstein arrived half an hour before the distribution station opened Thursday to take a number. He joined a crowd that was certainly large and impatient but showed no obvious signs of undue stress.
“Israelis are very tough and resilient people. The Jewish people has a long history of withstanding whatever the world dishes out,” he said.
Sam Wolff, 26, was pushing his son in a stroller. He arrived after the distribution center opened at 11 a.m., took a number, and discovered there were more than 100 people ahead of him in line.
Coming to a mall to pick up a gas mask because of fears of imminent war, he suggested, was the kind of thing Israelis were used to doing.
“This is just part of life – nothing’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “It’s just something to deal with, like we deal with everything else.”