The surprising new Defense Ministry approach to protecting the population in case of a war with Iraq echoes the preparations for the 1991 Gulf War. In a discussion held on Wednesday, exactly 12 years after the American ultimatum to Iraq expired, Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron, a reserve major general in the IDF, ordered the ministry to cease purchasing the current "black" gas masks and prepare to begin immediate production of hooded "Sapphire" masks, which come in two versions, "active," meaning with a battery-operated air pump, and passive, without the battery operated pump.
The defense establishment regards Yaron's decision as "earth shattering," and see it as a leadership move reminiscent of a similar decision taken by then-deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak on the eve of the Gulf War.
For Yaron, the decision this week was revolutionary. Only two weeks ago he was still passionately defending the black masks. In the wake of an article in Ha'aretz earlier this month reporting that one-third of the masks are not suitable for users, Yaron said the masks were the best in the world. As far as he was concerned, there was no need to even begin manufacturing the Sapphire masks. Active Sapphires are more expensive and involved battery-operated pumps that could not be used for more than a few hours at a time, while the Medical Corps opposed passive Sapphires, claiming they could develop dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide.
However, early this week Yaron received a letter that changed his mind and consequently, the entire ministry approach to the issue. Lt. Col. (res.) Gadi Bar-Sela, until the mid-1980s responsible for special equipment in the ministry's department for weapons and infrastructure development, revealed some new facts to Yaron.
An engineer whose job in the mid-1980s included responsibility for protection measures from chemical and biological weapons, Bar-Sela described systematic failures regarding personal protection systems. The letter was particularly expansive on the subject of the dangers the public will be exposed to because of the use of the black masks. He emphasized the fact that one-third of the masks are inappropriate for the population - and that this was known on the eve of the Gulf War.
One subject in Bar-Sela's letter particularly surprised Yaron: the clash inside the defense establishment over the distribution of hooded masks to children aged five to eight. The chief medical officer at the time said children should only get active masks, with hoods and battery-operated air pumps. But at the end of 1990 it turned out the emergency warehouses of the Home Front lacked hundreds of thousands of such masks and it would be impossible to fill the gap by producing "passive" hoods, meaning those without the battery-operated pumps.
The IDF's top echelon was bitterly divided over the issue. The chief medical officer opposed the use of passive hoods; deputy chief of staff Barak claimed it was the "lesser of the evils." At the height of the dispute it was revealed the chief medical officer had conducted an experiment in which concentrations of carbon dioxide appeared in the passive masks above the standards allowed. The test was conducted with the help of children of officers in the medical corps, who were volunteered as participants by their parents. The chief medical officer warned that using passive hoods could result in poisoning, suffocation and possibly deaths.
But the deputy chief of staff chose to ignore those findings and the chief medical officer's instructions. By the time the war began, the Home Front had handed out some half a million passive hood masks, including some 350,000 in the Tel Aviv area, which would be the main target of Saddam Hussein's missiles that ostensibly would be carrying chemical payloads.
The lengthy periods of time the children wore the hoods - already on the first night children in Area A (the Dan Region) spent about four hours wearing them - relieved all the fears. The chief medical officer's grave predictions did materialize. Not a single case of a child suffocating or any other symptoms resulting from carbon dioxide poisoning were reported to the hospitals.
That surprised not only Yaron but the participants at a Home Front command meeting on Wednesday. The chairman of the Knesset State Comptroller's Committee, MK Ran Cohen of Meretz, was the guest of the command and conducted a five-hour meeting attended by Yaron, Home Front Commander Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav; assistant to the defense minister for special equipment, Brig. Gen (res.) Shaul Horev; Ester Krasner, head of development of equipment against atomic, biological and chemical weapons; and Yaron Reshef, one of the owners of Da'a R&D, which is developing the Sapphire masks for the Defense Ministry.
Over the last two weeks Yaron had confirmed the accounts about one-third of the masks not being suitable for the population. When he found out this week that the assessments about the passive hoods masks were not true, Yaron, like MK Cohen, became convinced and ordered an end to the purchase of the black masks and the start of mass production of the Sapphire hoods, though initially the versions with battery-operated pumps. Yaron's decision resulted in a bitter argument with Mishlav, and the heads of the purchasing department in the Defense Ministry, including chief purchaser, Aharon Marmurush. But over their objections, Yaron made the strategic decision to cease production of the black masks at the Shalon factory in Kiryat Gat and to issue a tender for Sapphire masks.
The active hooded masks are twice as expensive as the passive ones and meant for about 100,000 people with special needs. However, in light of the discoveries about the success of the passive hooded masks of 1991, Yaron plans to expand production to non-battery activated hoods. MK Cohen has already called for mass production of passive Sapphires, meanwhile, the first tender hasn't been published, so if the planned war in the Gulf breaks out in the coming weeks, nobody will get a Sapphire, whether active or passive.