U.S. terror prompts run on gas masks in Israel

JERUSALEM, Sept. 25 (JTA) — Oranit Lugassi pushed the carriage holding her 6-month-old daughter into Jerusalem’s Malcha Mall, and looked around for the gas mask distribution center on the second floor.

“Can you just watch the baby for a second? I want to grab a number and see how long the wait is,” she said Tuesday morning to a woman holding a plastic shopping bag full of the shoebox-sized, brown cardboard containers.

The ironies of life in Israel: Lugassi didn’t think twice about leaving her infant daughter with a complete stranger, but made sure to stock up on the black rubber masks for herself, her husband and their two children, in case of chemical warfare.

“My mother has been calling me every day, asking when I’m going to get the masks,” said Lugassi. “She said she was going to come in from Petach Tikva and do it herself. She’s completely hysterical.”

She’s not alone. At Malcha, people were waiting about two hours to receive their kits in the mall’s underground bomb shelter. Over at the Israel Mall in nearby Talpiot, the average wait was about 20 minutes.

“I figured I’d take care of it now, before the lines got even longer,” said Benny, who was making work calls on his cell phone while waiting his turn. He needed to update masks for himself and his wife, and get new masks for his three children. His wife was pregnant with their first child in 1991, when Israelis donned the masks during the Gulf War as Iraqi Scud missiles attacked the Jewish state.

“I don’t worry because it doesn’t really help,” he said of the threat of chemical warfare. “My wife takes care of the worrying and I take care of making sure that our life continues to be as normal as possible.”

For the most part, that seems to be the current modus operandi of most Israelis. Sixty thousand mask kits have been distributed since the Sept.11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Since last week, five new stations were opened, bringing the number of gas mask centers to 28 across the country.

The average demand for masks before Sept. 11 was between 1,500 and 3,000 a day. Demand began rising after the U.S. terrorist strikes, starting with 7,000 the day after the attacks and growing to some 20,000 last Thursday.

Since the plane hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Israel has been reviewing all potential terrorist threats by air, sea and land. According to media reports, the military establishment is prepared for the possibility of an attack on Israel in response to the expected American assaults in the region.

The last time Israelis updated their gas masks was in 1998, when the threat of chemical warfare from Iraq followed U.S. air strikes to eliminate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, has warned against creating a public panic about the need to obtain gas masks. During a meeting with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week, he commented that “the public can remain calm. All steps to prepare for any developments have been taken.”

Nevertheless, people are reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching television and taking the necessary precautions. The malls are full of men and women schlepping gas mask kits. Those with older kits have straps to sling them over their shoulders, while others filled duffel bags, shopping bags and baby carriages with the boxes.

At the stations, people sat and stood patiently in line, reading books and newspapers while waiting for their number to be called. At that point, the process took only a few minutes. The Israeli soldiers manning the stations for the IDF Home Front Command wrote each person’s name, identification number, phone number and address, and then either handed over a mask or checked existing kits.

They warned everyone not to open the kits unless instructed to do so by a nationwide announcement broadcast on television and radio.

The masks come in four different sizes for infants, children, teen-agers and adults. Fitted for the face, each mask has filters to facilitate breathing in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Each kit also comes with instructions in Hebrew, English, Russian and Arabic, as well as medication to treat chemical injuries to the body.

The masks are made by Shalon Chemical Industries, a privately owned factory based in Kiryat Gat that develops and manufactures mask systems for civilians and the military against nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.

The company was founded in 1967, and sells primarily to governments. In Israel, the Home Front Command, a division of the IDF, handles the processing of the kits for Shalon Chemical.

“Right now, we’re changing filters, checking the rubber and cleaning the masks to make sure they’re in working order,” said an IDF spokesperson. “We’ re not in a state of emergency, but people can call the toll-free number if they have any questions.”

For now, the gas masks are being handed out to all Israeli citizens. Non-Israeli residents, such as tourists and foreign workers, have to pay approximately $50 for a mask, but the army will make exceptions for those who can’t afford the cost, said the spokesperson.

In Malcha, Debra Seeman, waiting in line with her husband, Dan, was prepared to pay for her mask since she isn’t an Israeli citizen. Her husband is, and in fact was in Israel during the Gulf War.

“We want to be prepared,” Dan Seeman said, “even if it turns out that we don’t need it.”

That attitude seemed to be the general consensus. Isaac, an older man sitting near the Seemans, said he had emigrated from Canada nine months earlier and his two daughters insisted that he get his mask now, rather than later.

Most people took a number, and then bolted upstairs to the mall to run errands, rather than sit and wait. One woman came downstairs to check on her status; when she saw there were still another hundred ahead of her, she gave her stub to a man coming in.

“I’m not in any rush to do this right now,” she said, declining to give her name. “I just figured I’d give it a try today.”

While Israelis were preparing their masks, they haven’t begun buying bottled water in bulk, or plastic sheeting and duct tape to secure windows. Many people live in new apartments outfitted with a ready-made “protected room” that is usually used as a den.

“We’ve got a TV in there, a phone line, the computer, the kids’ toys,” said Benny. “It’s all ready for us.”

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