As U.S. and Western top generals meet in the Middle East Monday to deliberate their next move, Israelis are flocking to distribution centers to pick up gas masks, fearing Syrian retaliation should the regime of President Bashar Assad be attacked.
Israel’s Postal Authority, which is responsible for handing out civilian gas masks, reported a three-fold increase in home delivery orders of chemical weapons kits which include gas masks and a nerve gas antidote.
According to Israeli Home Front Command figures, only 60% of Israelis have collected their protective kits in the distribution campaign which has continued for several years, though in the north of the country, a larger percentage possesses the kits, 69 percent in Haifa and 72 percent in Nahariya.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi over the weekend warned the Middle East would turn into “a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East” if the U.S. were to launch a military strike.
“The most dangerous regimes in the world must not be allowed to possess the most dangerous weapons in the world,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, apparently drawing a parallel with Iran, which Israel believes is working to develop nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu also voiced a veiled warning should Syria be considering a retaliatory attack on Israel. “…Our finger must always be on the pulse,” Netanyahu said. “Ours is a responsible finger and if necessary, it will also be on the trigger.”
“We will always know to defend our people and our state against whoever attacks us, tries to attack us or has attacked us,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.
Israel’s Channel 2 is quoting Israeli military sources who say they do not believe that Syria will launch a military attack on Israel were it to face a U.S. strike. “Israel’s estimation is that Assad would not retaliate against Israel” but that precautions were being taken nonetheless, Channel 2 reported, as quoted by the Times of Israel.
Channel 2 also reported that Israeli military officials believe the U.S. will give Israel advance warning of any strike on Syria if it’s decided to move forward with that scenario. It further reported that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke over the weekend with Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon about the possible ramifications of a U.S. military intervention. Gen. Dempsey also spoke with Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to update him on American deliberations.
The Obama administration's consideration of military intervention more than two years after the start of the bloody civil war which has killed more than 100,000 comes in the wake of a suspected chemical attack against civilians last week. According to Doctors Without Borders, some 355 Syrians with “neurotoxic symptoms” died after the attack in the suburbs of Damascus. It has not been unequivocally determined who was behind the attack, but Western leaders are pointing their fingers at Assad’s forces, including a senior administration official who told the Associated Press there is "very little doubt" government forces were responsible.
Top Western and regional military leaders including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, British, French and other generals are gathering Monday for a meeting in Jordan to discuss the military options.
This story has been updated.