Is the End of Israel's Gas Mask Era at Hand?

Dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal over the past month has gradually reduced the threat of chemical attack on Israel.

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Security officials are expected to recommend to the cabinet soon that the manufacture and distribution of gas masks to civilians be halted, in light of Syria’s compliance with the international demand to dispose of its chemical weapons.

So far only about 60 percent of Israeli civilians have obtained gas masks since the state resumed their distribution some five years ago, and continued distribution and manufacture have all but stopped due to budgetary constraints.

There are still tens of thousands of kits to be handed out until March 2014, but no funding has been allocated in the 2014 budget for the manufacture of additional masks.

It would cost about NIS 1.3 billion to manufacture gas masks for all civilians who do not already have them, and the annual cost of maintaining the masks is estimated at around NIS 300 million. That sum covers replacing masks because either the parts have become too old (after 25 years or more) or the children have become too old (and need a different size mask).

Two plants in Israel are still producing masks, though they have been working at a very slow rate for the past two years. In the past during periods of tension, the state looked into the possibility of a mass purchase of masks abroad, but it turned out that there are no foreign factories ready to manufacture large numbers of masks.

And now it appears that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is about to give the mask-less an official seal of approval. According to a report on Channel 2 news Monday night, Ya’alon is relying on an intelligence assessment that the chances of a significant attack on Israel using chemical weapons have greatly decreased.

The threat of a chemical attack by Iraq dissipated after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 (and it later turned out that the chemical weapons the Bush administration claimed were being held in Iraq could not be found). More recently, the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal over the past month has gradually reduced the threat of a chemical attack from the north, which Israel has always considered more dangerous than one from Iraq. At this point, though, no recommendation is in the offing to collect gas masks from civilians.

It seems that an attempt will be made to ensure Israeli plants continue producing gas masks so that the kits will be available to the military and rescue services.

People standing in line at gas mask distribution centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 28th August 2013

Meanwhile, security sources confirmed to Haaretz that the arrangement between the international community and the Assad regime regarding the dismantling of its huge chemical weapons stores is moving ahead according to plan. However, a dispute has developed between the parties over the way in which the dismantled weapons will be taken out of Syria.

Israel has taken into consideration the possibility that Syria will try to conceal small stores of chemical weapons to use against the anti-government rebels or smuggle chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but no evidence of such attempts has been found.

Israelis waiting in line to receive gas masks in Tel Aviv, August 28, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

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