Defense Ministry: Public should get new gas masks by end of 2008

If the government continues allocating the necessary funding, the Defense Ministry can complete renewing the public's gas masks by the end of 2008, defense officials said Monday in response to a report composed by a Knesset panel claiming that Israel was under-protected in the event of a nonconventional attack. The report authored by members of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC) - led by MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) - passed harsh criticism on the Defense Ministry's decision to collect gas masks at a time when Israel is threatened with all-out war with Syria. Last week, The Jerusalem Post reported that despite a government decision to boost the budget of the IDF Home Front Command, less than 50 percent of the public will have their gas masks renewed by the end of the year. Acknowledging the severity of the report, defense officials claimed Monday that it was actually Steinitz who was responsible for the delay in collecting the gas masks. Steinitz, defense officials said, was head of the FADC in 2003 and held up implementation of the plan to collect and renew the gas masks four years ago. "Steinitz and the FADC delayed the implementation of the plan that could have already been completed," one IDF officer said. "Now the same people who delayed the plan's implementation are complaining that it has not yet been implemented." In response, Steinitz told the Post Monday that the FADC prevented the Defense Ministry from beginning the collection and renewal process because in 2003, when the plan was first presented, the Knesset panel was told that it would take six months to distribute gas masks if a war broke out. "We delayed the implementation since three-and-a-half years ago they told us that if there is a war it will take six months to distribute the gas masks," Steinitz said. "That time frame was out of the question since a war can break out in a day or a week and we don't have six months to wait to get gas masks." Following months of debate, the FADC granted its approval to the plan after the Defense Ministry agreed to immediately refresh the gas masks of residents of northern Israel and to establish an emergency plan which would facilitate the distribution of gas masks to the general public within three to seven days. The report released by Steinitz on Monday found that the Defense Ministry did not stand by its commitments and never distributed gas masks to the North. In addition, the National Security Council discovered that it would take weeks - not days - to distribute gas masks to the general public.