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The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is expected to decide today to have all gas masks held by citizens returned to army warehouses, despite Military Intelligence's recommendation to leave the masks in people's houses in light of the Iranian threat.

The request that the committee approve the masks' warehousing came from the Defense Ministry, which rejected MI's recommendation in favor of another recommendation by a special panel set up to study the issue. That panel was headed by Major General (res.) Ze'ev Livneh.

Once the Foreign Affairs Committee endorses the move, the ministry will issue a tender to choose a private company or companies to collect the 6.5 million kits, each of which contains a gas mask, filter and syringe of atropine.

The ministry first asked the committee to approve the collection in September, but the panel rejected this request three times, charging that the defense establishment was not prepared to redistribute the masks quickly in case of need.

The defense establishment had said that getting the masks to every household in Israel would take up to six months, and the MKs retorted that any war could well be over by then. They were not convinced by the defense establishment's counter-argument that the masks are much less likely to be effective if left in people's houses, because the chances of damage or loss are much greater. Once the kits are opened, the masks' effectiveness can no longer be guaranteed.

The Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command finished drafting a revised distribution plan last week, under which masks will be distributed according to a fixed order of priorities, with the most populous areas of the country given top priority.

Dozens or even hundreds of distribution centers will be opened in these areas, and according to the defense establishment, all residents there can be equipped with masks within three to four days.

This plan is expected to win the committee's consent to the collection operation, even though it has two major drawbacks: People living in the less populous areas of the periphery are liable to charge discrimination, and it provides no solution to the problem of a surprise attack by ballistic missiles.

Another development last week also makes the committee's approval more likely: The Finance Ministry approved NIS 70 million to finance the collection.

The Livneh Committee recommended the collection operation due to the geostrategic changes in the region, mainly the American occupation of Iraq. These changes enable the masks to be safely returned to storage, thereby saving NIS 1.5 billion over the next decade, the panel said. According to the panel, warehousing the masks costs only NIS 150 million a year, whereas leaving them in private houses costs NIS 300 million a year, due to the greater likelihood of damage or loss.

During its discussions of the ministry's request, the Foreign Affairs Committee sharply criticized the decision by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon to order the public to open the gas mask kits when the American invasion of Iraq began in 2003. Livneh's panel said it does not know what percentage of the public actually obeyed this order.

The defense establishment claims that the monetary damage caused by this order was trivial: only a few million shekels. But the Knesset committee estimated the damage at hundreds of millions of shekels.

A separate issue, on which no decision has yet been made, is whether the existing masks should be replaced with the new Sapphire model, in which the defense establishment has invested tens of millions of shekels in developing. The defense establishment believes that about one-third of the existing masks are unfit for use, but tests have shown that the Sapphire model also has problems.