Israelis Line Up for Gas Masks as U.S. Ponders Syria Missile Strikes

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Abir Sultan / EPA

An Orthodox Jewish man shows a boy how to use a gas mask during the distribution of gas-mask kits in Jerusalem on Aug. 27, 2013

Middle Eastern conflicts always unfold on multiple levels — think 3-D chess — and for Israel the most relevant level of the crisis in Syria is what it says about the world’s approach not to Syria, but to Iran. As the U.S. prepares to make good on its threats to launch military strikes punishing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Israel sees the situation as a test of international resolve on checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Israel’s leaders call an existential threat.

“The Iranians are watching very closely how we respond,” says an Israeli official in Jerusalem. “The implications of this go beyond Syria.”

Yet at ground level, Syria is awfully close to Israel proper, and ordinary Israelis have reason to worry that an American air strike could produce consequences beyond the theoretical or geopolitical. Syrian forces stand just across 47 miles (76 km) of Israel’s northern frontier, and its ally Hizballah roams the grassy highlands of southern Lebanon that account for the remaining 49 miles (79 km). The former apparently has used chemical weapons on its own people, and the latter rained thousands of rockets into Israeli cities and towns just seven years ago.

In the mind of the Israeli public, those memories combine against the assurances of Israeli leaders that Damascus is unlikely to strike out at Israel in response to the expected American air strikes. The policymakers’ assessment is based on monitoring of Assad’s military, which betrays no preparations to carry out the retaliation threatened by midlevel Syrian officials, whose bellicose rhetoric is judged chiefly for domestic consumption.

But cool calculation was not what drove the Jerusalem residents who overwhelmed a gas-mask distribution center at a shopping mall Thursday, forcing it to shut down early. Like the long lines extending at other gas-mask distribution points this week, the episode betrayed the rising unease coursing just below the surface of Israeli society.

“We need masks for our families just like everyone else in Israel,” says Zeinab Sheikha, waiting outside in a Jerusalem distribution center. “If Syria attacks, then none of us are safe.” An Arab citizen of the Jewish state, Sheikha sat beside a religious Jewish woman. One wore the headscarf of a pious Muslim woman, and the other, the headscarf of a religious Jewish woman — strikingly similar except for the way the fabric is tied.

“We’ll prepare as best we can, to the extent we can, just in the way we did in 1990 for the Gulf War,” says Tzipi, the Jewish woman (who said she could not give her last name because as an Education Ministry employee she is not authorized to speak to the media). In 1990, Saddam Hussein threatened to strike Israel with chemical weapons in retaliation for U.S. military actions to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait — a situation with just enough parallels to the Syrian situation to galvanize attention anew. Hussein never did use chemical weapons against Israel, using conventional Scud missiles instead, but the uncertainty was terrifying in itself, given Iraq’s history of poison gases used against Iranian forces and Iraq’s Kurdish minority.

“We got everything ready, and the worst never materialized,” Tzipi recalls. In comparison, she says, consider the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel was largely surprised and suffered heavy battlefield losses. It went down as a dark chapter in Israeli military history. “We never want to leave ourselves in that situation again,” Tzipi says, “so we prepare and even overprepare.”

In the current crisis, Israel’s calculations are muddied by Syria’s recent behavior. Though technically still in a state of war with Syria by dint of hostilities that date back to Israel’s 1948 founding, for decades the neighbors have maintained a practical stability in many ways almost as predictable as with Jordan and Egypt, neighbors that signed peace treaties. Israeli policymakers regarded Assad as a rational if ruthless leader whose actions were guided by his interests. After Israeli jets secretly bombed a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert in September 2007, Israeli leaders declined to take credit for the strike, and Assad, significantly, declined to retaliate.

But the wrenching civil war in Syria, besides claiming more than 100,000 lives, has threatened the existence of Assad’s regime and challenged the traditional calculus of Syrian behavior. The best example is the chemical attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus on Aug. 21, including many children in their beds — if indeed it was the work of the Syrian military. “The Syrians already made a professional — technical and strategic — mistake when they used rockets with chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs,” defense reporter Alex Fishman wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth Wednesday morning. “The person who made such a mistake is liable to make more mistakes. And that is what the state of Israel is preparing for.”

The preparations are relatively low key. Iron Dome and Patriot antimissile batteries have been moved to Israel’s north, the area most vulnerable to short-range missile fire from Syria and Lebanon. Weekend leaves were canceled for Israeli military units in the area, and reinforcements sent from the south. Only about 1,000 reservists were called up, chiefly to the air force, military intelligence and Home Front Command, the Israeli Defense Forces section responsible for safeguarding the civilian population.

At the same time, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israeli officials to refrain from commenting on Syria, emphasizing the importance Israel maintains on keeping out of things, at least publicly. The Jewish state remains a pariah in much of the Arab world, handy for any party seeking to change the subject. “We’re situated in proximity to an American operation and we view this as an entirely American affair,” the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv quoted an Israeli military official as saying. “Israel’s involvement is being discussed only because it’s Syria’s neighbor.”

In fact, the Israeli military and the Pentagon work very closely as a matter of routine — the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force spent four days in Israel earlier in August — but U.S. military personnel were maintaining a very low profile inside Israel this week, Israeli military sources tell TIME. The discretion was partly because Israel is not being called upon to take part in the strikes the U.S. is planning — which the Israelis gather will involve only cruise missiles, so as not to endanger U.S. pilots — and partly because Washington prefers to emphasize the support for the strikes from other quarters.

Intelligence continues to be shared between Israel and the U.S., however, including communications intercepts down the chain of command that showed the chemical attack had been ordered by Assad’s forces, an Israeli military official tells TIME. “Both Americans and Israelis have enough information about the Syrian regime involvement in the chain of command,” the Israeli military official says.

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

191 comments
MarkKaspersky
MarkKaspersky

The only reason these Palestinians even want that land back is because of how well the Jews have developed it. winmasters bonus

Fahad Sanai
Fahad Sanai

Air strike for Syria and Gas masks for israelis.. what a Match!!

Julio César Rosa
Julio César Rosa

So far the Arabic people are fighting Arabic people. When did this become about Israel?

Jack Noneya
Jack Noneya

I thought Mr.B.O was suppose to get us out of war. Just another broken promise I guess, just like when he was running for president he promised to have the health care publicly viewed on TV and let everyone know what was in it. He will just take another vacation while all this goes on.

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

Recall Agent Orange in the Vietnam war? Now I am super curious then, and I hope someone can clarify this, but why is a certain govt prepared to strike another country over the use of chemical weapons... something the former country did themselves?

Ernest Spoon
Ernest Spoon

" The sad (every United States presidential administration since Ronald Reagan) has failed the people who deserve to have their healthcare, education and freedom of expression rights met."

Ernest Spoon
Ernest Spoon

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is handing out commemorative Zyklon B canisters full of campaign donations to all the Christian Zionists in the US Congress. I'm looking at you, John McCain! By the way, does anyone recall anytime since 1948 to present when the modern state of Israel has ever been subject to chemical weapons attack?

Bob Loveless
Bob Loveless

Message to the idiotic American politicians - stop sticking your noses into conflicts where you are not wanted! America the ugly!!!

Srk Samir
Srk Samir

pls.......... yar ladies is first

jcmartillo
jcmartillo

@TIME @TIMEWorld I feel sorry for what awaits Israelis when they will ALL be surrounded by Al Qaeda extremists.Prisoners of their own ...

Gavin Ezra Goh
Gavin Ezra Goh

Palestinian people need similar protection from the horrors of war, but the inequality of geo-politics renders this impossible. The US should really consider its decision to invade Syria really carefully. If and when it destabilizes the Middle East, it would be inconvenient for the Israelis, but for Palestinians it would be their wives and their children.

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

Sa wa dee paloma. Perhaps when you have more access to wifi, look at Time links, plus google syria etc... Many things will come up

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

To date, all reports I have viewed -I dont watch CNN- say "alleged"chemical strikes by Syria... but who knows

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

FANTASTIC NEWS: UK will not be involved with USA's proposed military strike on Syria. Allegations of chemical warfare by Syria have not been proven - which side?- which begs the question why intervention is required. When interviewed, one senator mentioned they have to protect their interests/investments (e.g. Oil).

Kristy Weber
Kristy Weber

He has not made a decision, waiting for the UN investigators to leave. Supposedly he is only wanting to use precise missiles to destroy the storage facilities of chemicals and then back out. Supposedly he is not wanting to become involved with the civil war only to prevent more chemical attacks.

Paloma Savaengcharoen
Paloma Savaengcharoen

Thanks Em Dodds! I have CNN and BBC but we get informed very little because it's a constant tape that runs the same thing over and over until the next day we get a little more information but not a whole lot compare to the news in the states I use to watch when I lived in N.J. I would get more information on my lap top when the internet is on that I share with a friend but he is not always home (working). I use WIFI only on my lap top or on my cell phone. I can't afford to pay for Internet and my friend helps me. I rely on the t.v. more when I get a chance to watch it, but at times I find it boring. :(

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

Some good news is that UK will not support US military intervention. ( Just curious ...I used to live bkk many years ...I found their news always up to date).

Sam Abraham
Sam Abraham

It's a pity that now Obama is going to becomes al-Qa'ida's striking air - force in Syria .

Paloma Savaengcharoen
Paloma Savaengcharoen

Guys I am American living in Bangkok and I rarely get much information on my side. I would like to know from any of you in here of what Obama has decided. I am praying he changes his mind 'cause if he attacks Syria, oh hell will break loose! What the hell is wrong with him, my gosh. He promised us no war and return the troops home after he was electected TWICE. Kindly give me some information over there of what is really happening, thanks & I greatly appreciate it! PEACE & STAY SAFE :(

arvay
arvay

The panic in Israel illustrates the fundamental non-viability of this artificial state.

This is just the start.

Wait until a missile lands on the Intel plant, or some other foreign investor pressured into putting resources into this war zone. Poof! There goes capital inflow. Oops! Time to move back to New York!

Many, many Israelis can move away and be safe. The Arabs live in the neighborhood, have nowhere else to go. Many Palestinians will laugh if missiles fall, even if some of their own people are casualties -- the way that many French people didn't complain when they lost some civilians as the nazi invaders were repelled.

Shane Schuller
Shane Schuller

While you lining up People, please clean up the place. It's filthy.

Em Dodds
Em Dodds

Regardless of ownership of land issues, the Palestinian people also deserve to be protected.

ANINDIAN
ANINDIAN

Dear Mr. President & Mr. Prime Minister of U.K.

I An Indian writing this comments on behalf of my country people. Our sincere request not to attack Syria. If you attack Syria then the oil Price will be at sky reach which we cannot afford to pay. Why do you want to attach Syria ?  Are they are attacking U.S or U.K. or are they killed your citizen.  When None of  the  things has reflected why do want to put your figure in their ASS.Without  attaching Syria our Rupees has reached Seventy Rupees and if you attack then our Rupees value definetly will be in Three Digit.

navinnandanan1
navinnandanan1

@TIME should have thought wen the made deadly weapons and used against arab world.

Yusuf Djuly
Yusuf Djuly

Nicholas alexander, well, apparently you are a zionist.

kingmackattack42
kingmackattack42

@arvay  Israel is not an "artificial state". Israel has been a nation for thousands of years and were on that land long before any so-called Palestinian laid claim to it. Arabs, as well as other peoples have tried to get the Jews to move off of this land for decades now and every time they've attempted something, they have left with their hat in their hand. The only reason these Palestinians even want that land back is because of how well the Jews have developed it. Before May 1948, that area was a waste land full of nothing but rocks, sand and weeds. Now, Israel supplies Europe with a large portion of it's imported fruits, vegetables and flowers. If the Arabs were to be in control of that land, they would be exporting nothing but misery, violence and rot.   

Openminded1
Openminded1

@ANINDIAN The best thing for you and your family is to move out of. india. Take all those rupees you saved and come to America the rest of the Patels that are here will help you buy a 7-11 franchise or a motel 6 and you can live in a country that eat cows and everything. 

saram103
saram103

@kingmackattack42 @arvay Arabs have lived on that land as long as Jews have. Abraham (peace be upon him)'s son Ishamael (pbuh) married an Arab woman. Moses' (pbuh) wife was from an Arab tribe, located (depending upon interpretation) in modern-day Jordan, Sinai, or Saudi Arabia whereas the Jews were all in captivity in Egypt. The Arabs lived in Palestine FIRST, and always lived there even during Jewish rule. The idea that Arabs came to the land later and did nothing with it is a lie; the area is historically along a rich trade route and has always been prime real estate. That's why Jews flocked there amid persecution in Europe, and chose to create Israel there (instead of alternate considerations in South American or Africa).

arvay
arvay

@kingmackattack42 @arvay

Israel has not been a nation for "thousands of years" this is historically nonsense. There have been two relatively  short-lived Jewish Kingdoms in the area, for most to the time the area has been ruled by various major states who have occupied it. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_ancient_Israel_and_Judah

The only reason israel exists is because:

The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, and the Christians decided that the Jews would someday be converted. Otherwise, they would have converted them at sword-point or killed them, the way they did with the "pagans" they encountered.

European anti-Jewish characters like Lord Balfour had been trying to deport European Jews for some time. 

As the Jews of Europe were at last being assimilated into European societies, WWI resulted in the rise of Nazism, which attempted to exterminate the Jews. After the defeat of the Third Reich, European nations, alarmed that the millions of displaced Jews would be communists -- got them deported to the state of Israel, with US help. Israel was carved out for the purpose from among people opposed to Israel, who will never cease fighting it. 

Zionism, the ideology of the Israeli state, is a racist "blood and soil"idea from the 19th century that shares with Nazism and other anti-Semitic systems the belief that Jews are a separate "race" that does not belong in Europe or anywhere else, except its "native" land. 

Some of your characterizations of the Palestinians reflect the racism inherent in Zionism. 

Israel is an ongoing thorn in the side of the West and the US in particular. It won't be there in 20 years. I am not an optimist, I expect it will perish among nuclear explosions and millions of casualties. Hopefully, it won't trigger WWIII.

But it will be gone.

saram103
saram103

@Openminded1 @ANINDIAN Perhaps you should learn to stop attacking people for their religious beliefs and feeding into narrow-minded stereotypes. Perhaps you're just attacking others because you've been attacked yourself for whatever belief you have, but that doesn't solve the problem, it just makes people hate you even more.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@saram103 @Openminded1 @ANINDIAN If the shoe fits the stereotypes, then you must wear the shoes. I have only been attacked in the line of duty, went with the job. Nice of you to care do not need your bleeding heart liberal bs. And I am loved by the people that matter to me I do not give a dam about your religious beliefs or anyone else,s beliefs. You religious fundamentalist are among the most violent in the world. You may how ever kiss my American rear end.