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Gas Masks In The Closet?
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
September 30, 2002

Jerusalem--For more than ten years, they've been tucked away in the back closet of every Israeli household. The last time we took them out was about five years ago, when we dusted off those ugly brown oblong boxes in response to some minor standoff with Saddam Hussein. But in recent weeks, radio, TV and newspaper public service ads have been exhorting us to bring our old gas masks in for replacement.

The weekend newspapers all reported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vow to hit back unilaterally should Iraq lob any of his weapons our way. On the same front pages are morbid reports that Teddy Stadium is being prepared to serve as an emergency tent city should homes sustain damage. Two large hotels, bereft of tourists, will function as field hospitals we're told, and health workers are receiving precautionary anti-smallpox vaccinations. A small black-bordered ad announces that hundreds of gas mask distribution centers are being reopened.

As the TV news showed lines of people at the centers last week, I decide to use some precious Friday morning free time to exchange my mask.

I make my way to a small shopping center in the Talpiot commercial area, and step out of the bright, warm sunshine of a fall Friday into the hustle and bustle of the serious business of protecting the Israeli public. A platoon of reserve duty soldiers--notable by their graying hair and beards--stands fully armed at the gate while a small group of their colleagues unloads a truck full of huge heavy cardboard boxes marked with the size of the masks they contain.

Notices posted in large letters in Hebrew, Russian and English urge the public to obey the instructions of the center commanders since their orders are complete and final. Large signs emphasize that the boxed mask kits are not to be opened until the order is given from the Home Command.

Waiting in the short line I have a chance to look around at the maelstrom of activity inside. A line of computers covers one wall of the empty shopping center floor. Huge stacks of boxes are being piled up in the back, and a row of women soldiers mans the desks where the kits are actually distributed. In the foyer, a young soldier demonstrates how to use the rubber lifesavers.

At the computer station, a harried young woman asks for my ID card. Entering my number into the computer she can determine where and when my old mask was issued. (The national ID card is the key to all official business in Israel. No one here is too concerned that the government can track every office I've visited, every doctor's appointment I've made.) After receiving a written OK, I'm waved on to the distribution desk.

Once again, under the watchful eyes of three or four lounging reserve soldiers I produce my blue ID card, sign the receipt and receive a bar coded gas mask kit with a shoulder strap. Handing it over in a plain white nylon bag, she bids me the standard, "Have a nice day," greeting and sends me out to the foyer. Perhaps the order to package the masks in bags is an attempt to avoid hundreds of people wandering around the streets with gas masks slung over their shoulders. Wide scale panic is to be avoided at all costs.

In the hallway, I come upon a young couple holding a six-month-old baby. They listen intently as the soldier demonstrates and explains the use of the special baby shield. It's a clear plastic contraption that covers the torso and head of the child, with a pouch for a baby bottle. It's hard to visualize any baby lasting more than three minutes in the thing. The parents are shown how to attach the special breathing unit and hook up the straps. Finally, they are given clear instructions on how to use the vial of antidote to nerve gas that comes with a syringe. The father turns to me and says what many of us have been thinking the past few days--this is supposed to make us feel better, but in the event, nothing's going to help.

He picks up his gurgling, cute and oblivious baby daughter, loads her kit onto the stroller and walks away with his wife, leaving a small group of adults to the next demonstration. After illustrating for us how the adult mask fits, the soldier calmly reminds us of the symptoms to watch for that would necessitate using the anti-nerve gas syringe. Chest pains, body tremors, nausea and vomiting----I experience the symptoms just listening to her. She hands us a small tri-lingual explanatory brochure, and we are ushered out so the next group may receive their instructions.

I walk back to the bus stop through the streets where people are preparing for Shabbat and children play. Riding through the center of town, I observe the usual Friday morning cafe life, albeit under the now familiar extra-tight security surveillance.

In this city where so much can happen in a week, who can tell whether we'll be sitting out there again next Friday morning sipping a latte with our masks safely stashed in the closet, or making a frantic dash to dig them out in anticipation of the next round?

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