NBC Weapons: Israel Unmasked



May 9, 2011: Last year, Israel began distributing new gas mask kits to its civilian population. To get the new masks, citizens must also turn in the old ones (distributed after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003). So far, 31 percent (2.4 million) of Israelis have received the new masks. In the next two years, another 1.8 million masks will go out, but that will only equip 55 percent of the population. The government has not approved the purchase of any more gas masks. If the money is not provided by the end of the year, the gas mask manufacturing will cease, and it will cost more to restart. The original plan was to complete the distribution process within three years. That plan sought to buy all the needed gas masks as quickly as possible, so that, if there was an emergency, the entire population could get them in a few weeks (by not bothering to collect the old ones). The slower distribution method ensured that the old kits are turned in, and that everyone gets a new kit and help, if needed, on how to use it. Budget politics is holding up the money needed to buy the rest of the gas masks.

For over a decade, Israel has been trying to improve chemical warfare protection for its civilian population. Things have not gone well. A new gas mask design was found to be defective, and attempts to find and purchase gas masks from foreign manufacturers failed (especially when it came to obtaining masks for children, particularly infants). It wasn't supposed to be like this, especially since masks were first obtained and distributed, with few problems, two decades ago.

Since 1990, Israeli civilians have had gas masks for protection against chemical attack by Iraqi missiles. Six years ago, those older gas masks were collected, checked, refurbished as needed and stored in army warehouses. The government felt that, with Saddam Hussein out of power, there was no other potential source of chemical attack, so no need to maintain the gas masks in the hands of the civilian population. But then Syria became more of a threat (with their hundreds of ballistic missiles, and large supplies of chemical weapons). Suddenly, the military realized that they had not refurbished all the masks because they lacked the money. On top of that there was the problem of finding a supplier for new masks, since many of the old ones were too far gone for refurbishment. When pressed on this matter, the Defense Ministry said that there would be a six month warning of a chemical attack, which would be ample time to get the gas mask problem taken care of. Then it was pointed out that the 2006 war in southern Lebanon came without warning, and the Syrians could have gotten involved with that one. Then, for nearly a year, there was a budget dispute between the Defense and Treasury officials, over who should provide the money to hire a contractor to actually distribute the masks. There was much speculation over how much more this situation can be screwed up.

But progress is being made. This year's civil defense exercises will also test a new system that sends alerts, to those in areas about to be hit by a missile, via cell phone text messages. The missile detection radars can calculate where the target is, and an automated system sends out the text messages to cell phones of people who live in the target area. That gives people a few minutes to seek shelter. Without gas masks and early warnings, it's calculated that at least 16,000 Israeli civilians will die if the Syrians attack with their missiles (armed with chemical warheads), and if the new gas masks are not available people in the target area. Syria may cease to be a threat if the current revolution there succeeds, but Iran still has missiles equipped with chemical weapons. So the Israeli civil defense exercises continue.




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