For weeks my wife had been nagging me to exchange our Saddam- era gas masks for
the new Ahmadinejad model.
There had been announcements, sometimes even a
bit of fanfare, about the Home Front Command and Israel Postal Company’s joint
mask exchange and distribution program, in place and working since early 2010,
but no warnings or exhortations for us to actually get off our butts and do
something about it.
Perhaps all the talk about Iranian nukes over the
past few years has made those strange-looking and uncomfortable facial
appliances seem useless next to images of mushroom clouds and scorched earth.
There are, too, the memories of 1991, when the masks may actually have killed
more people than Saddam’s Scuds – which, despite all the talk about Iraq’s
chemical and biological weapons, carried conventional warheads.
humor her I called the Postal Company, which for a relatively modest sum will
send someone straight to your door to deliver new masks and take your old ones,
making survival in the age of nonconventional weapons about as mundane as
ordering a pizza. Except that it would take far longer than the time
needed for an onionpepper- mushroom combo – about a month longer. Not good
enough, my wife said. “What if Bibi and Ehud don’t wait that long?”
So to really
humor her I enlisted my son’s help in emptying out the boydem, the crawl-space
built into our ceiling, until there, way in back, behind the knapsacks, sleeping
bags, suitcases and assorted detritus of years of family life, were four dusty,
shoe-box-sized cartons, each with an IDF stamp. And on Thursday of last week, I
took the cartons to a shopping mall in Jerusalem’s Talpiot industrial zone, one
of six brickand- mortar locations around the country where the joint mask
exchange program was taking place.
I grabbed a number, 906, at about the
same time 762 was being called, and after about an hour and a quarter spent
seated in one of a slew of garden chairs placed outside the storefront – among
strolling shoppers who more often than not seemed to have no idea what was going
on – I walked out with four fresh cartons.
It wasn’t clear to me whether
the contents of these cartons would be of any help should push come to shove
with Tehran, but their presence, now up front in the boydem, immediately made my
wife feel a whole lot better – especially the next day, when the Hebrew daily
Yediot Aharonot made me feel a whole lot better, too.
THE COVER story of
the August 24 issue of Yediot’s widely read weekend magazine Shiva Yamim (Seven
Days) was not at all about whether the new gas masks would come in handy, or
even about the growing tensions with Iran. Instead, it reported that fully 46
percent of Israel’s population, about 3.5 million people, lacked up-to-date
masks. Even worse, the vast majority wouldn’t be getting them anytime
Were the country to move to an emergency footing, the article
explained, the Home Front Command could quickly open more than 100 additional
distribution points throughout the country with the capacity to hand out a total
of some 400,000 masks a day. A quick calculation shows it would take less than
10 days to distribute masks in this way to those still needing them.
problem is, Yediot trumpeted, that there are only about 47,000 gas masks
remaining in the country’s storerooms.
The factory in Israel that’s
currently producing masks for adults is turning out only 1,000 a day, said its
assistant manager, who added that the plant can turn out 5,000 masks a day when
geared for peak production. So why, at a time of tensions, isn’t it doing
There was a change in governments after the gas mask exchange program was
established and funded, and with new governments come changes in
priorities. The current government, the assistant manager told the
magazine, is now funding only enough gas masks so that “in case of an emergency”
the production line would not be shut down completely.
The article went
on to describe the usual fiscal-babble that accompanies such stories, with the
Finance Ministry saying one thing and the Defense Ministry another: The money is
there, but it’s not there; it was budgeted but used for something else; it was
budgeted for something else but used for something entirely different. Blah,
blah, blah and so on.
But even if the money were to magically appear,
expanding the plant to full production might take half a year. Yossi
Sagiv, a retired colonel who as a senior figure in the Home Front Command had
established the gas mask exchange program, explained to the magazine that the
hiring and training of additional workers would take time. He also
pointed out the problems inherent in stocking up on materials.
the primary raw materials, rubber and charcoal, are imported,” Sagiv explained.
“This is no simple matter. No factory will import raw materials if you don’t
promise that there will be orders because these are raw materials with a short
shelf-life. The factory is not a philanthropy or a voluntary
Clearly, there’s a downside to
Surprisingly, said the article, there’s no shortage of gas
masks when it comes to children. While 90% of the country’s youngsters already
have up-to-date masks there are some 800,000 more masks in storage. So why
aren’t they being distributed to the remaining 10%?
“They expire in the next two
years,” said a current senior figure in the Home Front Command, “and the cost of
their distribution would exceed their value. I’m keeping them for an
Clearly, at least one government establishment thinks it’s
already been privatized.
And why, when there is a shortage of gas masks
for adults, is there a surplus for children? That, Sagiv told Yediot, is because
no other country makes masks for youngsters and since the early 1990s it’s been
policy here to err on the side of caution, even if it means overstocks and waste
due to shelf-life constraints.
Clearly, it’s almost impossible to plan
properly when money is tight and your opponents are lunatics, but at least some
people in positions of authority here were thinking of our kids.
WITH all this distressing news, did the article actually make me feel better?
With apologies to those who won’t have gas masks, I guess it’s because Israel
has become a country of individuals who must, first and foremost, fend for
themselves, and when you’ve succeeded in taking an important precaution for your
family in the nick of time there’s a major element of satisfaction, no matter
how many people are left behind.
For this satisfaction, though, I must
give sole credit to my wife. Had I ignored her nagging I probably would have
remained squarely on my butt, and my family would be among the 46% of the souls
in this country having to deal with yet another headache, a serious one at
With her foresight she’d make a fine policy planner, maybe in the
Home Front Command. For the time being, perhaps it’s time for her to play a