While tension is mounting in the Golan Heights and senior defense officials are warning of the possibility of imminent war with Syria, less than 50 percent of the population will have their gas masks renewed by the end of the year, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The cabinet on Sunday decided to cut NIS 480 million from the overall defense budget - mostly from administrative expenses - and instead redirect the funds to the Home Front Command and for defense procurement.
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In total, the defense establishment received in Sunday's decision NIS 400 million for procurement of new weaponry and military platforms as well as NIS 344m. for the home front, out of which NIS 110m. is designated for the renewal of gas masks.
Syria is believed to have a large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. According to the Global Security Web site, the Syrian arsenal is comprised mostly of large amounts of Sarin and mustard gas and is reportedly producing and weaponizing VX. The US, the report says, has estimated Syria to possess several hundred liters of chemical weapons with hundreds of tons of agents produced annually.
Acknowledging that the population's gas masks will not be renewed and effective for at least another two years, defense officials told the Post Sunday that the IDF Home Front Command was currently considering proposals, if the need arises, to make emergency purchases of gas masks from Israeli and American companies.
If war were to break out in the coming months, the Home Front Command would only have enough gas masks for 1.5 million adults and half-a-million children.
The shortage in gas masks stems from a 2003 Defense Ministry decision to collect the public's gas masks, a project that only began at the beginning of 2007. Due to a lack of funds, the project was recently suspended and is expected to be renewed - following Sunday's government decision - in the coming weeks.
"This situation could be interpreted as neglect," a senior official told the Post. "If war breaks out and non-conventional weapons are used then we could find ourselves in a major crisis."
Meanwhile the Post has learned that the defense establishment plans to set up a National Emergency Administration in the coming weeks that will integrate the IDF, Israel Police, Magen David Adom and Fire and Rescue Service and which will have a headquarters at the Kirya military complex in Tel Aviv.
The administration - the brainchild of former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh - will serve as a war room at a time of emergency and be responsible for collecting all information from emergency services and presenting updated reports to the military and political leadership.
Following the government's decision to cut half a billion shekels from the defense budget on Sunday, military and defense officials warned that the government's decision will come at the expense of training and equipment for reservists.
Before the cabinet vote, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned the ministers of what will happen if the defense budget is cut. "National responsibility obligates us not to harm the defense budget," he said. "The government needs to properly assess the situation in the home front and the threats Israel is facing and to provide them with financial support."
Defense officials said that following the decision to cut the budget they will now need to decide which projects to suspend or even completely shut down. A senior IDF officer said that the procurement of anti-missile defense systems for tanks could become the first victim of the new fiscal decrees.
In addition, he warned, reservist units would also be subjected to cuts and the IDF might be forced to suspend the procurement of new equipment needed to refill emergency warehouses.