The IDF’s Home Front Command will cease giving gas masks to civilians on Thursday.
On January 19, the security cabinet voted to halt the distribution because of “security establishment assessments that there has been a significant decline in the threat of chemical weapons being fired at Israel,” a result of Syria’s steps to disband its chemical weapons program.
The threat posed by Syria’s chemical arsenal has decreased substantially, but the disarmament program was behind schedule and proceeding slowly, military sources said.
Ze’ev Bielski, mayor of Ra’anana and a former chairman of the Knesset Home Front Preparedness Subcommittee, criticized the decision.
He described the production of gas masks until now as a process that lacked oversight. “I’d be in favor of Israel creating an inventory of gas masks, and setting up an enhanced ability to distribute them during emergencies,” Bielski told The Jerusalem Post.
Some 60 percent of Israelis have gas masks, a situation Bielski described as shortsighted and far from ideal, due to the fact that residents were issued masks regardless of where they live.
“Israel should draw up a supervised distribution plan, which can begin working out of population centers within 12 to 24 hours if needed, all over the country,” he said.
“Enlisted and reserve soldiers could be called up in an hour, link up with local authorities, and distribute, based on areas of priorities,” Bielski continued. “Then, they could decide which areas need the masks and which do not.”
Asked to comment on security estimates that the threat of chemical attack has decreased substantially, Bielski acknowledged that the dangers have lessened, but added, “The State of Israel is in a neighborhood that is very difficult to predict. I would not completely rule out the Syrian threat. Gas masks can’t be manufactured quickly, nor can millions of them be bought and sent to Israel in a few ships. We must make a strategic area to keep them available in areas that might need them, much like the Iron Dome [anti-missile] batteries that are moved around according to security needs.”
Responding to the criticism, the Prime Minister’s Office cited the recent discussion in the security cabinet, and said there has been no change since then.
After this month, gas mask distribution will continue at a reduced rate, and the chemical protection kits still being produced will be earmarked for emergency and rescue services, rather than the general population. The defense establishment will reassess the decision by the end of the year, the cabinet said.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said last month the decision was responsible, well-informed and “takes into account changes in threats in the Middle East and the power of the State of Israel.
“In light of Syria’s dismantling of chemical weapons, there is a dramatic drop in the threat of chemical weapons use against Israel, allowing us to make this morning’s decision. In recent years, Israel has developed extraordinary offensive and defensive capabilities, which deter countries and organizations from acting against us, certainly with unconventional weapons, as the price for that would be too heavy,” Ya’alon said.
“We are confident that the defense establishment and the IDF will continue to operate everywhere, near and far, to safeguard the security of Israel,” he said.