TEL AVIV — Omri Azarzar, 27, stood outside a post office in the southern part of the city here on Tuesday afternoon where the Israeli government was distributing gas masks to residents amid increasing fears Israel could be targeted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As the United States prepares military action against Syria, Israelis must face the reality that the chemical attack that prompted U.S action occurred within a few hours driving distance of Israel’s major population centers.
“If he’s shooting gas on his own people, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t shoot on us,” Azarzar said.
Israel only has funds to provide gas mask kits to 60 percent of its population, and the recent spike in demand has led to long lines. By 2:30 p.m. Israeli time, the distribution center here had stopped giving out waiting numbers to new arrivals.
With his motorcycle helmet dangling from his arm, Azarzar clutched onto a ticket bearing the number 807. “They’re only up to number 135 now,” he sighed.
I caught up with Michal Ben-Meir as she was moving her three young children to a shaded area. She explained that she had been waiting five hours to exchange her gas masks for properly fitting ones, and was still 30 numbers away.
This center was especially crowded because it was the one facility currently serving the heavily populated Tel Aviv and the surrounding area.
Ethel Ben-Abu said that she came from Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, “because I have a daughter who is less than a year old and they just raised the threat alert level.”
Though the Israeli government is taking precautions, including a limited call up of its military reserves, it remains a remote possibility that Assad would launch a chemical attack on Israel any time soon.
“The Assad regime is right now in a situation where it can still win the war or maintain an advantage against the rebels and if he were to open up a front with Israel in response to a limited strike, Israel would respond very broadly and take away its advantages almost immediately,” said Daniel Nisman, intelligence manager of the Middle East division of Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv. “Israel would destroy its armored corps, its air force, its missile corps and its chemicals. All of these things which are crucial — they are the only advantages the Assad regime has over the rebels, especially as they don’t have the manpower advantage.”
At the same time, Nisman notes that it’s a volatile and unpredictable situation, and there’s always the possibility that Israel could be dragged into a conflict accidentally.
Though he said gas masks serve mostly as a “placebo,” given that the site of the Syrian chemical weapons attack is “quite close, and especially if you have a regime that hates you and is willing to use them on its own people even when it isn’t backed up against the wall, it’s a very unnerving situation.”
Aviv Oreg, former head of the “al Qaeda and Global Jihad” desk in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence unit and founder of intelligence consulting firm CeifiT, said that though Assad wasn’t likely to attack Israel in the near term, “we are concerned that at the point when Assad feels that he is against the wall and he has nothing left, then he will try to drag Israel into the conflict by attacking us.”
The logic, he explained, was that if Assad gets desperate, he might decide that his last best chance of survival is to provoke an attack by Israel, thus uniting the Arab world against a common foe.
“There is also a saying,” he added, rattling off a phrase in Hebrew. “This is what Samson says, ‘I will be dead together with all of my enemies.’ ”
In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, Iraq launched 38 Scud missiles into Israel over the course of a month. The missile attacks resulted in two direct civilian deaths, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it also caused other indirect casualties as well as property damage.