Thousands of Israelis lined up outside gas mask distribution centers on Thursday, despite efforts by authorities to calm fears of being on the receiving end of a threatened Syrian retaliation should the US take military action against the Assad regime.
The postal service, which oversees the distribution, said an angry mob forcibly took gas masks from a distribution center at the Hadar Mall in Jerusalem on Wednesday, leading to the site’s indefinite closure. A second center, on Shmuel HaNavi street, remained open.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers were deployed to maintain order in the northern city of Haifa, where more than 5,000 people jostled in line as they waited for their protective kits on Thursday. Crowds had swelled at the city’s only distribution center, a sports arena, long before its 8 a.m. opening time. By mid-morning 1,000 gas masks had been given out there to recipients who had waited as long as two and a half hours in the hot August sun, the Walla news site reported.
Long lines were reported in Tel Aviv and other stations as well, with some people arriving before 5 a.m.
The scene Thursday was largely a repeat of the day before, which also saw thousands of Israelis line up at distribution centers around the country, despite IDF assessments that the chances of a Syrian attack on Israel is low.
In response to the demand the Home Front Command extended the opening hours of gas mask distribution points in key cities.
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.
Should a concrete threat arise, gas mask distribution points will open up for 24 hours a day, a Home Front Command official told Channel 10.
Many on Wednesday faced with long waits reported giving up and leaving the centers without their protective kits. Gas masks must be replaced every 15 or so years, depending on the model.
“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 on Wednesday. “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.
Earlier Thursday, two women fainted while waiting at the Haifa distribution point, and were taken to the city’s Rambam hospital for treatment.
However, IDF officials say there are no plans to open more distribution centers, Israel Radio reported.
While officials remain adamant any attack on Israel was 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.”
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.
AP contributed to this report.
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.