Knesset Panel: Home Front Not Ready for Nonconventional Strike

Committee blasts collection of gas masks from homes, 2003 decision to open emergency kits at start of Iraq war.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has concluded that the home front in Israel is not at all prepared for the event of an nonconventional attack, saying that the defense establishment's inaction on emergency kits is ineffective and harmful.

The document criticized the decision to collect gas masks from the homes of Israelis, leaving them unprotected in the case of a biological or chemical attack. In the event of a war, the report maintained, the authorities would not have enough time to distribute masks to the entire population.

The committee called for the kits to be fixed and updated, saying that their current state will bring the "de facto destruction by our own hands of the home front defense system."

The committee said that the "level of readiness and preparation of the home front in Israel in the last few years is in constant decline, due to the problematic decision - which, in retrospect, is costing millions of shekels - to open the gas mask kits in 2003."

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Israel feared that an Iraqi retaliation would target Israel. Residents were instructed to open their gas mask kits, which contain a mask, iodine tablets to combat radiation poison and a syringe of atropine to be used in case of a nerve gas attack. Steinitz's criticism stems from the fact that when the kits are opened, they must later be revamped before they can be used again.

The panel's report also said that "the number of weeks necessary, according to estimations by the national security council, to distribute NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] kits is completely unreasonable. If fighting on the front line is accompanied by intensive fire within Israel, distributing the kits will become an impossible mission."

The report also asked why the national security council estimate on the time it would take to distribute the masks contradicts what senior defense officials told the Knesset in 2005. Then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz, his deputy Ze'ev Boim, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and Home Front commaders told lawmakers that the emergency kits would take just three to seven days to distribute.

The subcommittee has asked that the defense establishment comptroller and the State Comptroller look into "how the Knesset of Israel was apparently misled on a critical issue like the redistribution of the kits."

The committee report calls for a "swift return to the deployment of an effective NBC defense system in homes of citizens, a halt to the active collection of the kits [from the citizens] and a process - gradual but quick - of updating and redistributing the kits."

However, former head of the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command Ze'ev Livneh told Army Radio Sunday that though the preparation level is not great, there isn't room for any real concern. He added that the gas masks must be stored in one place, and distributed only in the event of a tangible threat.

"Supposing what is written [in the report] is true, the conclusions are not encouraging in the event of a chemical attack on the home front. However, we mustn't panic or get hysterical, but rather take action, and I know that action is already being taken."