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The nationwide 5-day Home Front defense drill code-named "Turning Point 4" hit a peak on Wednesday when sirens wailed across Israel simulating a missile attack. Israelis were asked to head for the nearest shelter or safe room, as part of a massive drill meant to test national preparedness.

But no matter how ready Israelis prove themselves to be, the country is still not equipped to handle a chemical attack, according to a senior army officer, who says there is a shortage of gas masks.

The siren, an alternately rising and falling wail, sounded for a minute and a half.

While civilians have no legal obligation to cooperate with the drill, surveys conducted by the Home Front Command found that last year some 40 percent did. This year, it hopes the rate will exceed 50 percent.

However, the army said, anyone on the roads should keep driving rather than stopping for the siren.

In addition to the 11 A.M. siren, sirens sounded at various other times in dozens of cities nationwide in order to test the siren system.

The drill also included dozens of exercises in rescuing trapped or wounded civilians, evacuating them from zones under rocket fire and temporarily resettling them in safer areas.

But most of these exercises, which were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, were meant for isolated areas and were not expected to disrupt traffic. The biggest ones were to take place at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, the Ashdod Port and army headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Col. Hilik Sofer, who heads the Home Front Command's population division, warned Tuesday that Israel "is at a low level of preparedness for the chemical threat, due to the distribution of gas masks. So far, we've distributed over 300,000 gas masks, but this must be improved."

Altogether, only 5 percent of Israelis currently have gas masks, Home Front Command officers explained. And while the command has prepared a plan to distribute masks to everyone in the country within a few weeks if an emergency arises, it so far only has enough masks for 60 percent of the population. The Finance Ministry's budget division has yet to approve funds for purchasing the rest, even though the cabinet has voted to do so.

As part of today's drill, the IDF will open eight gas mask distribution centers, and anyone living in those areas can obtain a gas mask there.

Despite his concern over the lack of gas masks, Sofer said that overall, this year's drill - which began on Sunday - has revealed significant improvement in the level of cooperation between the IDF, rescue services and local governments.

Altogether, 68 local governments representing 71 percent of Israel's population are participating in the drill. Over the next two days, dozens of them will practice absorbing refugees from areas under rocket fire.

"This is a work in progress," Sofer said. "Every year, more safe rooms are built, and more underground parking lots that can serve as shelters are located."

The command is also working on a system to identify where a missile is likely to hit and notify residents of the affected area only, so that other Israelis can continue their normal routine.

One thing the command is not happy about is the Education Ministry's decision to hold standardized math assessment tests in some 600 schools today - meaning students in those schools will not practice fleeing their classrooms for a safe room. Itai Benjamin, who heads the national parents' council, was also unhappy, telling Army Radio that the ministry could just as easily have held the exam a few days earlier or later.

In other schools, however, students will participate in the drill, and will remain in the safe rooms for about 10 minutes after the siren sounds.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stressed yesterday that the drill does not reflect an assessment that war is likely anytime soon, but said it was necessary for Israel to be prepared if it occurs.