The Emperor's New Clothes
January 11, 2010
We (the Israeli public) are so screwed.
Late December it was announced that the Israeli Postal Authority had won the
bid, put out by the Home Front Command of the Israeli Defense Forces and the
Ministry of Defense, to distribute Gas Mask Kits to the Israeli population.
Apparently the announcement was noticed more in the United States than in
Israel. I only learned about it when several media sources in the USA contacted
me asking if the news item they had read was further confirmation of Israel's
preparing to attack Iran. One Emailed me the brief item.
It did not contain much detail, only that the distribution was to begin in
February. I faxed the Postal Authority's Spokeswoman asking for details of the
distribution program. While waiting for her response I did some quick, down and
dirty research on the Internet. There was very little to be found. The few
"hits" I discovered repeated the same information. However one added a detail.
Completing the task was scheduled to take 3 years. Whoa!
Since the beginning of the 1990s the government of Israel has provided the
country's residents with an individual Gas Mask Kit. Each Kit contained a gas
mask of the correct size for its wearer, an up-to-date filter, a self-injector
of Atropine and an instruction manual for using the mask, self-injector and
building a sealed room. Each individual kit came in its own box, with a carrying
strap and a bar code label with the owner's name. The entire distribution was
computerized. We received periodic notices to bring our kits to a distribution
center to have the contents inspected and "renewed."
A large portion of the Israeli public ignored the notices mailed to their homes,
asking them to get their kits updated. They preferred waiting until the 11th
hour and did, not once, but twice. In 1998 and again before the start of the
Second Gulf War, there was serious reason to believe Saddam Hussein would attack
Israel with missiles armed with chemical and perhaps biological warheads. About
the time the Home Front Command's urgings every quarter hour on TV and radio
became strident, and entrepreneurial plastic and sealing tape sellers began to
appear on every street corner and at every traffic intersection, the mass of
irresponsibly lethargic people panicked. Both times our Civil Guard Israeli
Police unit was tasked with helping to keep order at the emergency distribution
centers setup in every area community center and inside the gym in many
neighborhood high schools.
It was ugly. For weeks there were twice, sometimes thrice-daily 30-truck convoys
of IDF heavy transport vehicles bringing thousands of Gas Mask Kits to the local
distribution centers. The trucks were lucky if they could reach their
destination. The streets all around every center were gridlocked by the cars of
those who had waited to the last minute. There were lines, hundreds of people
long - and Israelis are impatient, pushy line-crashers. One evening while in
uniform directing traffic I was hit by a car, knocked down and almost run-over.
In the years since, the government has simply taken our Gas Mask Kits away from
us. We have been provided with lots of different and unconvincing reasons why.
An equal number of different and unconvincing promises have been made as to when
our Kits would be returned to us. What appears to be the most reliable
explanation is that only enough money was budgeted for the collection of the
Kits. Little, if any funds were allocated for procuring new, modern, replacement
gas masks, filters and Atropine. Providing Kits to the more than 70 percent of
the public who turned in their Kits as ordered was a matter yet undecided and
"in committee." In Israel when the government wants to avoid making an unpopular
decision or evade deciding a difficult issue, it sends the matter "to Committee"
to languish, often for years and years.
A few days ago I heard from the Postal Authority Spokeswoman. She explained that
the Postal Authority is planning a big informational campaign. It will be
distributing the Kits by area, beginning with the country's central costal "Dan
Region," according to the priorities and schedule of the Home Front Command. The
Postal Authority will be setting up "Distribution Centers" for the public to
come pick-up their Kits. Alternatively, or a small fee (about $6.50) a Postal
Carrier will deliver your entire family's Kits to your home and check that the
gas masks fit properly. The timeframe to complete the project is three to five
I contacted the IDF Spokesman's Office and asked for the details of the
distribution plan since the Postal Authority was simply in charge of delivery,
not planning or prioritizing. The IDF responded that:
The process of collecting gas mask kits from the Israeli population was
completed in July 2008. During this process, 77% of the kits were collected.
The distribution of the gas mask kits will take place in defined areas in
accordance with the government's decision on the matter. The distribution
process is set to begin within the next two months and will take place gradually
over the next three to five years. In case of emergency, an accelerated
distribution process will be put in place, pursuant to an assessment of the
"Sources" at the Home Front Command added that the distribution is to begin
February 28th and will commence as a "Pilot Project." If successful, it will
continue using postal couriers. People will be able to call the Postal Service
hotline and order the Kits. Those who do not wish to pay for delivery can pick
up their Kits themselves from the post office.
The same day I interviewed the Postal Authority Spokeswoman, the major Israeli
daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported that the government's plan provided for only
60 percent of the population to be given Gas Mask Kits. Based upon legal advice
that not protecting all of us would be a policy difficult to defend, the
government decided to step up gas mask production (Israel has two factories) and
allocate an additional billion shekels funding. Half the money is to come from
the Ministry of Defense, diverting funds from other projects. Where the other
half billion will be found remains unknown. Two billion was allocated initially.
If that was only enough to protect 60 percent of the population, I do not
understand how another billion can cover the remaining 40 percent. But then as
the Hebrew phrase goes, I'm a "Rosh Katun," a dull, severely simple thinking
This week there will be a massive drill by the Home Front Command, including
virtually all of the Dan Region, simulating an attack with biological weapons.
I'm not so sure that knowing that the IDF is preparing for that possibility will
ease the public's concern. Moreover rumor has it that all that may be
distributed by the Postal Authority is your old gas mask (after being checked
that it is still serviceable) with a fresh filter and without an Atropine
I believe it is time for a reality-check. Few Israelis would disagree with my
assessment that war with Iran, and Syria, Lebanon, Hamas and Hezbullah is a
matter of when, not if. Many would say that "when" is soon, as soon as this
summer. In the past, just handling the stampede of those Israelis who ignored
the notice to update their Kits until the last moment proved to be a huge task.
No doubt, even if sufficient kits existed (and they don't) an accelerated,
emergency distribution to the entire population is an unachievable dream,
actually a nightmare.
Take my Jerusalem neighborhood as but one example. We have 50,000 families. Not
50,000 residents, 50,000 families. How many Kits do you think fit in a large IDF
6x6 truck? How many kits do you think need to be trucked into our neighborhood?
Within our neighborhood traffic moves at a stand-still because our one and only
major artery, Main Street, is now and forever-after permanently semi-gridlocked
thanks to the never ending construction of (actually destruction wrought by)
Jerusalem's mythical Light Rail.
And then there is the Israeli Postal Authority. Annually I write that if you
need to rely upon the Israeli Post Office in order to do business in Israel,
don't do business in Israel! While the Israeli Police and Court System/Judiciary
are hotly contesting the Postal Authority's well-deserved status as Most
Incapable, Incompetent and Dysfunctional of all Israeli entities, they remain
tied for Second Place honors. The Post Office can't reliably deliver the mail.
It is going to get our Gas Mask Kits to us. What a joke...we will all die
Little if any distribution of gas masks can actually be accomplished before the
onset of the war. The government may delude itself, but like the little boy in
Hans Christian Andersen's fable, this little boy sees that the King is Naked.