Israelis scramble for gas masks as tensions with Syria rise
1:00 PM, Aug 28, 2013
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis lined up at gas-mask distribution centers Wednesday and communities bordering Syria readied bomb shelters as top government officials held emergency meetings amid fears of a possible Syrian attack on Israel. Israel also deployed additional missile defense systems near the country's border with Syria.
Supported by allies in the West, the U.S. has signaled that it may soon strike Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons last week. That has raised speculation that Syria might retaliate with an attack on Israel, a close U.S. ally.
Israeli demand for gas masks has tripled in recent days, said Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution. About five million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks and all of the country's citizens are eligible for them, she said.
A large crowd gathered a Tel Aviv distribution center Wednesday, where Galia Cohen was among those waiting in line for hours to collect free masks for herself and her family.
"I have two children and I am afraid for my children," she said.
Sivan Yehieli, chairman of a civilian emergency response committee along Israel's northern border with Syria and Lebanon, told Army Radio that towns in the region were preparing for a possible attack, readying bomb shelters and drilling school children on how to flee to shelters.
"The citizens need to be prepared just like the army," said Yehieli. "We don't want to find ourselves surprised."
A parliamentary committee in charge of civil defense was meeting Wednesday to discuss the gas mask distribution efforts. Israeli army commanders and top officials and security chiefs have also been meeting in recent days to discuss and assess the situation in Syria.
No special troop movements or exercises have been ordered, but additional Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense batteries were deployed Wednesday in Israeli areas near the Syrian border, Israeli defense officials said.
Israel uses U.S.-made Patriot missile defense batteries against medium-range missiles, and the Iron Dome system is designed to intercept rockets fired from short distances of up to 70 kilometers (50 miles). Israel says the Iron Dome system shot down one of the four rockets launched from Lebanon into northern Israel last week, and intercepted a rocket fired toward the Red Sea resort town of Eilat earlier this month. The Iron Dome system has also intercepted rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.
The defense officials also said they believed the U.S. would carry out an attack on Syria within days, and that Israel would receive U.S. notification before any strike. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential security assessments.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu warned Syria that if Israel is targeted, it will respond "with force."
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies. But Israel has kept its distance from the Syrian civil war, in part because it does not want to get dragged into the conflict and also because many of the factions battling the Syrian regime are hostile to Israel.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria. Violence has occasionally spilled over into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where Syrian mortar shells have landed. Israel has occasionally accused Syria of aiming at Israeli targets, and Israeli troops have returned fire.