Wednesday October 7, 2015
Israel Hayom
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Ruthie Blum

Gas masks are not the issue

After last Wednesday's poison gas attacks in Syria that caused an estimated 1,300 civilians to die in excruciating pain, the United States finally decided to appear as if it was about to take action. Though "assessing" whether it is Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces or his opponents who are responsible for the dastardly deed, the White House told the Defense Department to "be prepared." After that, four U.S. Navy destroyers were sent to the Mediterranean.

This spurred Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi to announce on Saturday night that any "U.S. military intervention will create a very serious fallout and a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East."

On Sunday, during a tour of Southeast Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. Asked whether the movement of the American warships indicates that a military operation is imminent, Hagel said, "When we have more information, that answer will become clear."

On Monday, a United Nations inspection team in Damascus, on its way to accumulate that "information," came under sniper fire.

While this blatant attempt to prevent the international community from finding chemical weapons was underway, Syrian Baath National Council member Khalaf al-Muftah told Radio Sawa -- a U.S.-funded Arabic-language station -- that Damascus considers Israel to be "behind the aggression, and therefore it will come under fire" in the event of an American attack. "We have strategic weapons and we can retaliate. Essentially, the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel."

He subsequently made similar statements in an interview on Iran's Al-Alam News Network.

Iranian officials also responded on Monday to a potential American strike in Syria by threatening Israel. "No military attack will be waged ...," said Islamic Consultative Assembly member Hossein Sheikholeslam. "Yet, if such an incident takes place … the Zionist regime will be the first victim."

Later in the day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated, "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and -- despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured -- it is undeniable."

What he did not do, however, was specify when, if or how America was going to hold Assad accountable. Nor did he respond to Iranian and Syrian warnings about what would happen to Israel if the United States actually did take action.

Israelis have not been waiting around to find out. This week's renewed threats about the intention to make Israel suffer for American policy (or, more precisely, a lack thereof), caused families across the Jewish state once again to line up at gas mask distribution centers.

The first time Israel prepared for a gas attack was in late 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein told then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush that if the U.S. dared bomb Iraq, Israel would be sorry. Saddam made good on his promise. With the outbreak of the First Gulf War, Scuds began to rain down on greater Tel Aviv.

Since the war in Iraq was waged in response to information on weapons of mass destruction, the fear was that Saddam's missiles might carry nuclear or other unconventional warheads. As a result, we Israelis were instructed to seal off a room in our homes with duct tape, to don gas masks and put our infants into gas-proof tents as soon as we heard an air-raid siren. We were also told that, in the event of exposure to nerve gas, we should use the atropine autoinjector included in our kits to reduce the effects of the poison.

We did this for the duration of the war, even though it became clear early on that the Scuds were "regular" bombs -- a fact that rendered our sealed rooms and gas kits useless. Not only that. After the war was over, there was much debate about how effective these kits would have been if nuclear or chemical material had been released into the air.

Nevertheless, in the winter of 1997, when it appeared that the United States was going to go after Saddam Hussein again, we Israelis repeated the routine of sealing a room and picking up our gas masks. When that scare proved to be a false alarm, we took down the duct tape and put our kits back in the closet.

In 2003, the government announced it was collecting our kits for refurbishment and upkeep. This operation lasted for close to five years -- just about the amount of time it takes Israelis to do anything when it's not an emergency.

In 2010, we were told to come and get our kits again. Since then, there have been spurts of public pouncing on gas kits, sparked by regional events. This week's threats from Syria caused such a surge. Indeed, according to the Israel Postal Company -- which operates the distribution centers -- on Sunday there was a four-fold increase in demand for gas masks. The IDF Homefront Command claims, however, that only 60 percent of the population is covered at this time. And Knesset Subcommittee on Homefront Preparedness Chairman Eli Yishai attributes this to a lack of budget.

"We won't be able to supply enough [gas masks] if God forbid something happens," he told Army Radio on Monday.

Earlier this month, the Israeli government toyed with the idea of imposing a gas-mask tax to confront this challenge, but backed down due to strong opposition from members of the Knesset.

But funding our gas masks is not the problem. The problem -- as it was during the Gulf wars -- is that Israel is not merely getting caught in the crossfire; it is a prime target. Furthermore, even if Washington does take action in Syria, not only will this be too little, too late. It will be pointless, at best -- and a catastrophe at worst -- if Iran is left intact.

Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"

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