January 5, 2010

Israel, the U.S. and the Arab World

Israel Defense Force to Blanket Israel with Gas Masks

January 5, 2010

The Home Front Command is planning to begin distribution of individual protection kits, i.e. gas masks, to every citizen starting in late February, according to a cabinet decision taken last week.

Originally, just over 60 percent of the population were to receive kits, but a decision to extend that protection to the whole country means the production of the necessary equipment has been stepped-up, and another billion shekels is needed to fund to the endeavor.

The plan is to distribute protective kits to each of the nearly eight million citizens (in line with a population estimate for 2013), over a period of three years.

Debate over how to appropriately defend against chemical and biological warfare has been ongoing at both the political and professional levels for more than a decade. Both the defense establishment and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been involved in discussions.

Individual protection kits, in the form of gas masks, were used during the first Gulf War in 1991.

The country was again ordered to prepare kits for possible use during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Following that ground invasion, and as a result of the assumption that a large portion of the gas masks were no longer useful because of the amount of time that had passed since their production, a decision was made five years ago to collect them.

Two years ago, during the Olmert government, a decision was made to redistribute the gas masks, but money for the project was scarce. The Home Front Command estimated it could only provide 60 percent of the population with working gas masks, and a decision was made to provide them to the citizens of the areas most likely to come under attack: the Dan region and northern Israel, among others.

The Israel Postal Company, the national postal service, won a Defense Ministry tender to distribute the kits directly to homes starting in late February.

However, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and MK Matan Vilnai, who is manages the Home Front, argued recently that the planned distribution program - 4.5 million kits in three years - fell short. Legal advisers pointed out that it would be difficult to defend a policy that did not account for the personal safety of all citizens equally.

An additional billion shekels was needed, on top of the two already invested, to produce the necessary gas masks at the two factories. Five hundred million shekels will be provided by the Defense Ministry, by diverting funds from other projects, but it is still unclear who will provide the remainder.

Barak and Vilnai both made decisions based on strategic assessments which say there may be an escalation of tensions in the coming years, including the firing of rockets and missiles against Israel.

Extreme scenarios have Israel also being hit with chemical weapons.

Security sources told Haaretz that under such circumstances the state is obliged to behave thoroughly and address the improvement of security to the citizens seriously. Broadening the distribution network of the gas masks is part of the efforts to seriously improve the preparedness of the Home Front in emergencies.
"Many things have been done since the Second Lebanon War. The cabinet decision last week is another step in this direction," a security source said. "It is not a sign of fear but of greater preparedness. Whoever is planning to fire missiles at Israel should know that we are ready to protect our population."

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