Frustration, not panic, as Israelis jostle for gas masks

A glimpse of a gas mask distribution center; a talk with the former ‘national soother,’ and a reflection on Israel and chemical weapons

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Israelis at a gas mask distribution center in Haifa on Thursday (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash 90)
Israelis at a gas mask distribution center in Haifa on Thursday (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash 90)

If someone took a picture at the entrance to the capital’s only gas mask distribution center on Thursday, a snapshot frozen in time, it would be easy to run a caption that said something like “Fearing a gas attack, Israelis surge toward limited distribution centers.”

And it’s true; there were enough sweaty men pushing against the barricade to fill up a picture frame. There were black jacketed police officers with machine guns and blue-shirted policemen keeping the crowd back. There were women carrying children and pushing strollers. There were Spanish speakers and English speakers and a middle-aged man in a wheelchair. There was one man cradling a newborn in the August sun. A full-time yeshiva student named Yisrael, a father of three young children, standing on line at his wife’s behest — “she told me not to come home without masks for the children” — pointed at the newborn and told this reporter, “Look, he brought her here to try and get some sympathy.”

Those were the people outside — the ones who had no hope of getting gas masks on Thursday. Inside, people waited in the shade. Some were well into their second day of waiting. Some were frustrated. Some were furious. But no one, on either side of the police barrier, seemed overly nervous or hysterical.

Rivka, an ultra-Orthodox woman who lives near the distribution center in the Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood of Jerusalem, had four children in and around the stroller she pushed. She had come early in the morning and had taken a number. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the line was still crawling from numbers 90 to 100 and she fingered her slip of paper, which bore her number — 177. Asked why she came and whether she feared a possible chemical attack, she said, “No. I just want to make sure that I do what I’m supposed to do as a civilian. Be ready — that’s my role.”

A retired lawyer named Yehuda, holding number 283, said, “There’s no chance of a chemical attack but there’s always a risk, so you come.”

An Israeli postal worker delivers gas mask kits to a Jerusalem distribution center on Thursday (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
An Israeli postal worker delivers gas mask kits to a Jerusalem distribution center on Thursday. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Even Cindy, a mother of three and a new immigrant from Sonoma County, California, who arrived in Israel two weeks ago, was calm. She differed from the other Israelis in line only in that she smiled more frequently and was worried not so much about the duration of the wait as about the prospect of having to push to the front of the line when her number was eventually called. She had come on Wednesday and had placed the number 822 into the flap of her bright, new Israeli identity card.

More than 24 hours later, she had not yet been served. Moreover, rather than keeping the ticker running through to the following day, the postal service had started a second line on Thursday morning and so while Wednesday’s numbers 720-740 were being served, the Thursday line was approaching 100. “This could be made easier,” Cindy said, suggesting a host of alternative distribution methods and perhaps around-the-clock distribution.

Back in the US, she, her husband and their children had some basic survival gear in the house, including gas masks. “We didn’t pack them,” she said. “We didn’t really have the space.”

David Yosef, a security guard at a supermarket and a resident of the Har Homa neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, emerged with four gas masks late in the afternoon. He said he had missed two days of work waiting for the masks and had witnessed a fight at the distribution center in Talpiot on Wednesday morning. Asked whether it had been sparked by hysteria, he said, “No. Someone pushed some guy’s mother. That’s how it started.”

As for the process itself and the efficiency of the system, he pushed his index finger down on this reporter’s yellow notepad and said, “Write this down. Disgrace. That’s what this is. I waited since yesterday at 9 in the morning.” He handed the children’s masks to his wife, who waited outside, and said, “The only reason I did it was for the kids. If I didn’t have kids, I never would have come.”

Nachman Shai, the calm in the Desert Storm

On Thursday evening, local news reports revealed the following: The army has called up reservists and canceled all leave across the Northern Command; the Ministry of Health has instructed hospitals to ensure they are ready for a possible chemical strike and to keep staff on call over the weekend in case of an attack; thousands of Israelis braved the crowds and the August heat and secured some 20,000 gas masks for their families; and finally (what round-up could be complete without a word of warning, a whiff of annihilation, from Iran), General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Iran Republican Guard Corps, warned that a Western strike against Syria “will result in the imminent destruction of the Zionist regime,” the Iranian news agency helpfully reported.

This, without the necessary caveats, is fearmongering. The army would be criminally negligent if it did not keep most of its personnel at its posts. Hospitals, likewise, must prepare for the worst. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean it’s likely. It just means that the organs of the state are acting responsibly. As for Iran, the loud barking would seem to indicate a growing fear of the American bite.

Unfortunately, Israel has yet to present to the public a single authoritative and calming voice to put these developments in perspective. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv Wednesday and said, “Pursuant to the security consultation that was held today, there is no reason to change daily routines. At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario.” He released a YouTube video on Thursday with a similar message. The prime minister is many things, but calming is not one of them. Furthermore, he has more important matters to address. He is the commander in chief, not the national psychologist.

MK Nachman Shai, a brigadier general in the reserves and the IDF spokesman during the first Gulf War, was once, however, a sort of national psychologist. It was his voice, reverberating through sealed rooms across the country in January 1991, that calmed entire households. It was his simple advice — to drink water — that brought comfort to many Israelis as they sat, disbelievingly, in gas masks, fearing a chemical weapons attack. The Times of Israel checked in with him to see whether the public’s anxiety was being well tended to.

MK Nachman Shai on the way to a June Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
MK Nachman Shai on the way to a June Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

“I don’t want to give out marks right now, because we are still in the middle of something. Or actually something that has not yet started,” he said. “But the first stages are crucial. They dictate the way things are handled.”

Shai said the home front is in far better shape than it was 22 years ago, when Saddam Hussein fired 39 missiles at Israel, killing one person. He noted that the IDF had built Iron Dome and Arrow 2 in the interim and that the Home Front Command was far better trained and the hospitals far better equipped to deal with a wave of civilian casualties, but said that, for a variety of reasons, the gas mask issue has been a debacle. “That’s the one black stain,” he said; “the gas masks, which are an economic issue, have become a psychological issue.”

All Israelis received gas masks in 1990, in advance of the Gulf War. In 2007-2008, the majority of the masks were collected and in February 2010 the Home Front Command and the postal service began redistributing them. Currently, roughly 60 percent of Israel’s citizens have gas masks. Equipping the entire public would cost an additional NIS 1 billion ($280 million), Shai said. “I don’t even want to go into whether or not they are needed — that’s a separate story. But you can’t have a first-come, first-served policy of distribution when there aren’t enough. The lack creates unfounded concern among the public as though nothing is in order, and that isn’t true. The state has built an entire plan.”

At this point in time, he said, “It would be better to have either zero percent or 100 percent of the public equipped.”

Shai spoke about how he became the voice of calm during the first Gulf War by chance, saying that he happened to answer a call from the radio while en route to Tel Aviv and that since the stations could not play music after a missile strike, he simply had to keep on talking. He noted that his famous bit of advice to a populace under missile attack came as a result of his understanding that it is calming to have a sip of water. And he stressed the importance of never straying from the truth.

“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “Above all else, only tell the truth.”

He did not say that the head of the Home Front Command today, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, is a former commando who seems to detest the media, or that the IDF Spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, is an affable former intelligence officer who is albeit more comfortable with the media, but still is an officer who made his keep shunning the cameras. But it is true: The IDF would do well to find a friendly, believable, truthful and reliable officer and to keep him or her in front of the cameras during a US strike against Syria.

The national trauma

Gas is not the most deadly weapon in the world or the most heinous. In fact, it is not always that effective. In World War I, it often blew back into the faces of those who fired it. On the Iranian front, in the Iran-Iraq War, it had little strategic value. In Syria, it has been responsible for only a small fraction of the 100,000 dead. But it is, as Shai said, “a very deep national trauma.”

Few statements or images are able to alleviate that trauma. But it would be wise to consider that, as Lt. Col. (res) Dany Shoham — an authority on chemical weapons in the Middle East and a researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center — told The Times of Israel last year, the two common denominators in terms of chemical weapons usage in the Middle East “are that the target populations were not protected and they had no nonconventional response.”

Israel has the capacity to launch an overwhelming response to any such attack. And although no responsible Israeli leader can come forward and declare to the public that, on account of that deterrent capacity, there is absolutely no chance that anyone in Syria will fire a chemical agent at Israel, it is exceedingly unlikely.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, right, speaking with Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Tuesday (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, right, speaking with Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Tuesday. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash 90)

When pondering the notion, I find myself drawn back to a cool, gray day in May 2005. Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, then the head of the General Staff, walked alongside me — I was reporting for the Forward — for a few minutes at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. It was his first time in Poland. He spoke about how his father had served in the Jewish Brigade in World War II and had often related his experiences. His mother, a native of Galicia who lost her parents and family in the war and hid in the forests before making her way to Palestine in 1947, never mentioned her experiences. “Heaven forbid she should spoil the Zionist youth with terrible tales of what happened on European soil,” he said.

Later, at a ceremony, he declared, “I, Moshe Ya’alon, the commander of the IDF, and grandson of Moshe and Shayna Zilber, who were killed in the Holocaust… stand here today in an IDF uniform and salute them. I give them the guarantee, in the name of the IDF, that Jewish blood will never flow freely again.”

Ya’alon is currently Israel’s defense minister. Anyone who watched him snap that final salute knows that Israel would best not be tested with gas.

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