Don’t be fooled by the long, angry lines over the past few days at the handful of emergency gas-mask-distribution sites set up around the country.
This is not the sign of a panicky public. Nor is this even a sign of a public that is “jittery” or “anxious,” two favorite journalistic adjectives used these days to describe the Israeli “mood.”
Rather, the lines at the gas-mask centers are a sign of a pragmatic public, a public that figures, “You know what? Syrian President Bashar Assad is an evil man who gassed his own people. Who knows what he is capable of doing? If the state is giving out free gas masks, we might as well get ours, too, just in case.”
It is also the sign of a public that waits until the very last minute to take precautions.
And the unruliness of the behavior in the lines, how is that to be explained? Is not the pushing, the shoving, the yelling that has been shown on television continuously over the last few days not panic? Is that not an example of people falling over themselves to get a life raft before the life rafts run out? No, not at all. Disorderly conduct at long lines is not the sign of panic. It is the sign of an Israeli distaste – indeed a human distaste – for standing in line, especially in very long, extremely slow-moving lines on a blistering hot day.
Panic is something else. Real panic about a Syrian missile attack would have angry, unruly lines of people standing not outside gas-mask distribution centers, but outside airline offices clamoring to get tickets out of the country before the missiles tipped with deadly chemicals come crashing in.
Panic would be a run on supermarkets to stack up on water and basic foodstuffs because of fear that the country’s vital services would be shut down, not because there is a three-day Rosh Hashana holiday lurking just around the corner.
Panic would be seen by bare hotels and canceled flights into the country, and diplomatic missions emptying out their personnel, and the Tel Aviv Municipality making preparations to turn public parks into makeshift cemeteries (as was done in the nerve-wracking, finger-biting days before the Six Day War, when there was genuine fear in this country).
No, we are not there. Far from it. We are also far from the true anxiety that gripped the country in 1991, before the First Gulf War when windows were taped and sealed rooms were meticulously prepared and the tourists stopped coming.
The mood is also nowhere near what it was during the bloody peaks of the second intifada, when people were genuinely fearful of when the next bus would explode.
It is not similar to the tension that preceded George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the concern that gripped the country on the eve of Cast Lead in 2008 or Pillar of Defense in 2012 when large parts of the country hunkered down in bomb shelters waiting for the rockets to fall.
Indeed, what we are tasting now is a small dose of what we have tasted numerous times in the past. Rather than panic, the sense is more of “been there, done that, let’s get this over with and get on with our lives.”
But the lack of panic is not only because we’ve been there before. It also has do with a confidence the country has in its own ability to deal with whatever is thrown in its direction.
Some may argue that such confidence is misplaced, and at times – like during the Yom Kippur War – it certainly was. But more often than not that confidence has proven to be well founded, and has enabled the country to survive, thrive – and not panic – in a very dangerous, inhospitable and unpredictable neighborhood.
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