NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS
February 4, 2014: After 23 years, Israel is going to stop distributing gas masks to its citizens this month. The issuing of gas masks to civilians began in 1991, after Saddam Hussein fired some SCUD ballistic missiles at Israel. Iraq had used chemical weapons a lot during in the previous decade while fighting a war with Iran. Syria was also building up its chemical weapons stockpile and its arsenal of SCUD missiles, although they were considered less likely to attack. But because Saddam remained in power after his 1991 defeat Israel continued issuing the gas masks. But now even Israel is convinced that the Syrian chemical weapons stocks are being removed and destroyed. If the Syrian government survives the three year rebellion that is still going on, those chemical stocks can easily be rebuilt. But that takes time and Israel will be watching. So in the meantime the chemical weapons threat is considered greatly diminished. There is still a threat from Iran, but that is considered remote. Israel will keep stockpiling gas masks, but for distribution to disaster relief personnel. Just in case.
Before this decision Israel feared that Syrian chemical weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists. Israel also threated to use air attacks against Syrian chemical weapons storage sites if there is any sign that these weapons are being turned over to terrorist groups (especially the Lebanese Hezbollah). The U.S. has made a similar threat in the past, but the Israelis are more intense about this because they have long been the primary target for Syrian chemical weapons. This attack would be carried out even if the rebels (which include Islamic terrorist groups) were about to take possession of one of the four chemical weapons factories or one of twenty storage sites for chemical weapons.
Syria always denied that it had chemical weapons or that it was preparing to use these weapons it does not have. And the world always knew this was a lie. After the current rebellion began in 2011 there were increasing reports of activity around bunkers said to hold Syrian chemical weapons and that some of the chemicals were being loaded into bombs, artillery shells, or some of the several hundred ballistic missile warheads. Once that loading is done the bombs, shells, or warheads must be used soon because these containers are more subject to leakage than the industrial type storage tanks the mustard or nerve gas is normally kept in. The Syrians did use these weapons several times, against rebel fighters and civilians. Outrage at that caused Syria to surrender its chemical weapons.
Israel has long prepared to deal with Syrian chemical weapons even if they did land in Israel. The 1991 era Israeli civilian gas were upgraded in 2005 when the 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). At that point the Israeli military realized that they had not refurbished all the civilian masks because they lacked the money and efforts to remedy this were just dragging on. 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 the Defense Ministry was pressed on this matter they said that there would be six months 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 was finally made. In 2011 civil defense exercises tested a new system that sent 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 would die if the Syrians attacked with their missiles (armed with chemical warheads) and if the new gas masks were not available to 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 and the distribution of gas masks continues. Now, that effort is being scaled back a bit, until another threat becomes dangerous enough to alarm the civilian population with the need to maintain gas masks for everyone in the family and ensure they have the new models.