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Israel announced Monday that it was going to mass distribute gas masks to protect its population against biological and chemical weaponry. Despite the fact that the speakers at the press conference to announce the details (which were disclosed by Haaretz some two months ago) claimed that the decision to distribute the masks "had nothing to do with anything," it is nonetheless difficult to see it as unrelated to the sharp climb in regional tensions of the last few months.

Israel's leaders have been engaged in intense flip-flopping over the issue of gas mask distribution in recent years. First, the masks (which were distributed on the eve of the first Gulf War, in 1990) were taken away from the public, a move explained by the claim that they would be better kept in one place by the IDF Home Command. Later, following a pointed cabinet dispute over redistribution, it was decided that the masks would be given out once again, this time only in areas considered to be especially under threat - such as the north of Israel (from Syria and Hezbollah) and the south (from Hamas from Gaza). Now, comes the official announcement that gas masks will be distributed to everyone, regardless of location.

The main consideration is likely a judicial one. The defense establishment came to realize that a decision to distribute masks to residents of Haifa, while withholding them from nearby Zichron Ya'akov on the grounds that it is located further south, would not survive the High Court. The judges would overrule the decision on grounds of discrimination, so the IDF may as well launch a general distribution and step production of the masks.

The Achilles' heel of the decision is the financial constraints. GOC Home Command Yair Golan admitted Sunday that an overall budget for the project had not yet been found, and that the issue of funding was still subject to negotiations by the defense and finance ministries. The masks would be another substantial addition to the budget, coming only a few months after the government authorized NIS 2 billion, most of which is dedicated to dealing with the Iranian threat.

Meanwhile, even though the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system has been completed, no funds have been allocated for its production, with only two systems okayed. The army, however, believes more systems are needed to defend the Negev and the Galilee.

So to what extent is the chemical threat palpable? That's a deeply divisive question. Some civilian defense experts say the effect of such a threat is mostly psychological. The enemy would find it difficult, they say, to launch rockets and missiles with chemical warheads that would cause any real damage. Moreover, the other side knows that Israel would react with extreme aggression if such warheads were used.

Going against Yair Golan, who advocates gas mask distribution, are several top officers in the IDF general staff, who say such a move would be unnecessary and primarily serve to cover the behinds of politicians wary of another Winograd Commission in the wake of a future war.

The gas mask distribution is part of a feeding frenzy that has taken hold of the Israeli home front in the last two years. This doesn't only stem from Israel being caught with its pants down in the Second Lebanon War, but also from an understanding that in any future confrontation the enemy will focus most of its pressure on Israel's civilian population.

The fears over Israel's civilians are not only related to the possibility of a conflagration over Iran's nuclear program. In recent weeks, tensions have been rising between Israel and Syria and Hezbollah, with fears that Iran would attempt to push the region into a conflict, thus diverting the world's attention from its nuclear program and postponing any planned tough sanctions.

So does all of this actually have anything to do with chemical weapons and gas masks? In a roundabout way, yes. Syria is stockpiling large amounts of chemical warheads. Just a few years ago, Russian scientists reported they had developed the ability to install such warheads on rockets like those in the hands of Hezbollah. Even now, the presence of chemical weapons in Lebanon is still uncertain. But the (imaginary) scenario in which a guerilla organization, not just a nation state, has chemical weapon capability would shift the balance of deterrence between the sides.

Can Israel be certain that it will be able to dissuade Hezbollah before the group uses chemical weapons? And in the event of war, does Israel have an effective response to the launch of such weapons? These are the tough - and worrying - questions.

Posted by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff on March 2, 2010

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