Distribution centers overwhelmed by run on gas masks
With only thousands of gas masks left in storage, thousands rush to distribution centers and wait in line for hours • Israel has only enough gas masks in the country to protect 60 percent of the populace.
Ilan Gattegno, Daniel Siryoti, Yehuda Shlezinger, Lilach Shoval and Hili Yacobi
Hundreds crowd a Tel Aviv post office to collect gas masks
Photo credit: Yehoshua Yosef
With talk of a pending attack on Syria and that country's possible response, Israelis began flooding gas mask distribution centers this week. Long lines, shouting, pushing and pouncing on gas mask kits have been common scenes all over the country in recent days.
In Haifa, thousands of residents seeking to obtain gas masks for themselves and their families waited in line for many hours on Wednesday. The long waits and crowds had a predictable effect, and there were instances of pushing and even fist fights in line.
Yariv Cohen, a resident of Acre who arrived at a distribution station in Haifa, told Israel Hayom that he had been trying for days to reach the Homefront Command hotline.
"We decided to come to the central branch in Haifa, and we were in shock. Starting in the morning thousands of people gathered outside the post office. People were pushing, hitting, cursing, and there were even fights that broke out," Cohen said. "After five hours of waiting, we gave up and went home without any masks. We have three small children and right now neither they nor we have masks."
Many of the mask seekers said they did not understand why the Central Post Office in Haifa was the only distribution point for all of Haifa, its suburbs, and the Western and Lower Galilee.
"It's not logical that we should have to come from Shlomi and Maalot [both in northern Israel] to Haifa to get gas masks," said Shlomi resident Anya Schnirer. "I left Shlomi at 7 a.m., arrived in Haifa at 9 a.m., and at 2 p.m. I am still waiting in line. Even if I have to sleep here tonight, I will not go home without a gas mask kit. I have small children at home and I cannot miss work again and wait here for an entire day."
The Israel Defense Forces emphasized that the Homefront Command had not issued any new instructions to citizens. It said that in the wake of the media reports, there had been about 20,000 calls to the command's hotline, and there were large crowds at the distribution centers. Despite the public demand, the IDF has not opened additional distribution stations.
There are only enough gas masks for about 60 percent of Israel's citizens. Most of these have already been distributed, and only thousands of masks are left in storage.
In Tel Aviv, too, thousands of people came to the post office branch on Hahagana Street. There too, fights and shouting were common. Disabled and elderly citizens sat helplessly in wheelchairs on the sidewalk outside as more agile citizens pushed ahead of them, and pregnant women were jostled in the lines. Mothers with babies born in the last year were directed to a special line, but even there, pandemonium ruled, with the women and young babies waiting hours outside in the August heat.
"This is our punishment as citizens for not going to obtain gas masks until the last minute," said Orit Cohanim.
"I am not afraid of an attack, but we have to do our utmost," said Uri David.
Those who tried to avoid the lines and order a mask over the phone encountered busy signals, and some people were not even able to connect to the gas mask hotline.
"Calls to the hotline are at a peak," the post office said in a statement. "We are reinforcing the hotline with additional staff to respond to the demand for masks."
The rise in the anxiety level among Israelis and their demand for masks sparked an instant response from around the world, with numerous gas masks being offered for sale on the eBay shopping site. Alongside hundreds of gas masks for sale from China, Germany and Russia, some masks were issued by Israel's Homefront Command. Some of them appeared to be old, the kind that were distributed prior to the First Gulf War.
A Haifa resident was selling a vaccum-sealed mask with operating instructions for $50, while a resident of the Galilee was selling the same mask for $49. A person in Jerusalem was offering the bargain price of $30, plus $15 for shipping.
There were also Israeli masks for $35, but without packaging. Someone was selling a used mask for $5.24. Most of the sellers promised to send the mask within three days of receiving the money.