Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week compared the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah to the risk of them reaching al-Qaida.

Netanyahu’s conclusion is clear: If necessary, Israel will attack chemical weapons storage sites in Syria or convoys bringing such weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, in order to prevent such weapons from reaching the Lebanese group.

Israel has been living for decades under the threat of Syria’s biological and chemical weapons. The forced acceptance of this was based on the mutual understanding that any effort by Syria to use these weapons against Israel would draw an immediate, exceedingly harsh response from the Israeli side.

But the promise of deterrence against a terror group like Hezbollah is substantially different from building a balance of deterrence against a relatively orderly state like Syria. While Hezbollah is a fairly established organization, with military bases and tangible assets (from office buildings to gas stations), an Israeli threat against them is not the same as threatening to attack a country’s strategic infrastructures.

The Israeli assumption is that Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah is less predictable in his behavior than Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is why the Israel Defense Forces must keep Syrian weapons out of Hezbollah’s hands.

We’re not even talking about the other possibility – that weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of the crazed Sunni fringe, including organizations identified with al-Qaida, which are now trying to topple the Syrian regime.

But besides threatening to attack, one must also ask what defensive measures Israel is taking to prepare for the possibility that chemical weapons will indeed fall into dangerous hands. The answer is rather worrisome.

Four years ago, after lengthy delays, the Israeli government decided to renew the distribution of gas masks to the public. After another two years of bureaucratic wrangling, a decision was made to fully fund the project, so that every a mask for every citizen would be assured.

But that decision was never implemented. “To this day we haven’t seen a single additional shekel more than what was decided from the start,” an IDF source said.
To date, the Home Front Command has distributed gas masks to 53% of the public.

A new campaign that Israel Post has launched recently on the Internet makes the especially dramatic claim that, “Some 4.2 million citizens have equipped themselves with protective kits. Only a very limited inventory remains.” The postal service is the state’s subcontractor for the gas mask distribution project, having won the Defense Ministry tender. Its messages are fully coordinated with the Home Front Command and have its approval.

So what about the other 47 percent? The problem, the IDF says, is not the readiness of the public to obtain the kits, but two other obstacles: budget and the annual production capacity.

Theoretically, to equip every resident with a gas mask would require another NIS 1.3 billion. But the pace of production is also a problem. Today there are two firms that manufacture gas masks – Shalon, which manufactures them, and Super-Gum, which refurbishes old ones. Even if the money was available and both these production lines were working at top capacity, it would still take two years to make all the needed kits. There’s simply no way to accelerate the pace further. And unlike in the past, Israel can no longer rely on being able to buy gas masks abroad. The production of such protective kits for the civilian market essentially stopped at the end of the Cold War.

The Protective Kits Administration is working today with an annual budget of NIS 163 million. This sum is enough to keep the production lines working and the distribution apparatus in place. Between 30,000 and 40,000 masks are produced and distributed every month. Almost everything that’s made is given out. The Home Front Command isn’t holding any reserves of intact kits, with two exceptions: kits whose expiration date is relatively soon (within three years), which will be distributed only in an emergency, and extra kits for children, which the IDF prefers not to distribute now so as not to run into a situation in which a family can get kits for the children but not for the parents.

On an average day, the postal service distributes between 2,000 and 2,200 gas masks through its eight distribution stations and via home delivery. In recent days the number of requests has gone up to 3,000 a day, apparently as a result of the widespread media reports about the risk of chemical weapons from Syria.

All told, the state of protection against chemical weapons is not encouraging, to say the least. And this is the case just as many Israelis watching the upheavals in the Arab world and the nightmarish scenes being documented in Syria, are starting to wonder whether the force of the taboo against using chemical weapons against Israel may be fading.

This, too, is part of the picture. It would behoove those threatening to also be prepared.