Israelis fear breach of Syria´s chemical arsenal (AP) Associated Press) By AMY TEIBEL and KARIN LAUB JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/25/12 4:47 pm ET)
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JERUSALEM – Israelis rushed to get government-issue gas masks
Wednesday, the latest sign of mounting fears that Syria´s chemical
weapons stockpiles could be used against them as the crisis there
Until a few days ago, the possibility of getting dragged into Syria´s
civil war was not a major issue in Israel, whose leaders have had a
laser-like focus on the potential threat posed by Iran´s suspect
nuclear program. That changed when Syrian President Bashar Assad´s
grip on his country turned more doubtful last week, following
startling military gains by rebels and a bomb attack that killed four
Syria on Monday threatened to unleash chemical and biological weapons
if the country faces a foreign attack; Syria is believed to have
nerve agents as well as mustard gas.
Israeli officials are more worried about the possibility that the
weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants from Lebanon´s
Hezbollah or other groups should the regime fall.
"For us, that´s a casus belli, or red line," Israeli Foreign Minister
Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday. He told Israel Radio that the
government would act immediately to prevent that from happening as
tensions rise along Israel´s northern border.
The fighting also has hit too close for comfort with the thud of
exploding mortar shells on Syrian territory near the Israeli-annexed
Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. That has drawn Israelis
with binoculars to a strategic plateau, seeking a glimpse of the
battle and expressing concern for their nearby homes.
Syria and Israel fought two wars, in 1967 and 1973, and have failed
to reach a peace deal because of disagreements over the fate of the
Golan Heights. However, Assad and his late father Hafez kept Syria´s
frontier with Israel quiet.
The Golan holds tremendous strategic importance for Israel, both as a
territorial buffer that protects northern Israel, including the Sea
of Galilee, and as a key water source.
Some Israeli officials fear that a power vacuum in Damascus could
turn the Golan into a haven for militant groups, much as Egypt´s
lawless Sinai Peninsula has attracted a variety of anti-Israel
radicals since the fall of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak disclosed over the weekend that
he had asked the military to prepare for a possible attack on targets
in Syria to secure strategic weapons in the event the Assad regime
collapses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit with a
Israel has a history of high-stakes military attacks on foreign soil.
In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built in
Saddam Hussein´s Iraq. In 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed a site in
Syria that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed to be a secretly built
Amid the flurry of threats and warnings this week, Israel´s army
chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, had a word of caution, telling a
parliamentary committee that attacking Syrian weapons arsenals could
have unforeseen consequences and drag Israel "into a broader
offensive than planned."
There is concern that Hezbollah might launch a counterstrike if
Israel were to attack a convoy transporting weapons from Syria to
Hezbollah´s base in neighboring Lebanon, an Israeli security official
It´s seen as less likely Iran would join the fray and risk a major
confrontation with Israel just to help out an ally, the official
said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted
to reveal sensitive deliberations on military options.
Israel´s enemies have a combined arsenal of some 200,000 rockets and
missiles, a large chunk of that held by Hezbollah, according to a
recent estimate by the chief of Israel´s military intelligence.
Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel in a 2006 war, and Israel
blames it for a series of attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets
around the world, including last week´s suicide bombing in a
Bulgarian resort that killed five Israeli tourists.
Over the years, Syria has served as a transit point for Iranian
weapons reaching Hezbollah, and the Lebanese militia is one of
Assad´s few remaining allies, along with Iran. Israel fears that
Hezbollah could try to raid Syrian weapons arsenals under the cover
of chaos ensuing from a possible regime collapse.
"Could you imagine Hezbollah, the people who are conducting with Iran
all these terror attacks around the world — could you imagine them
having chemical weapons?" Netanyahu said this week. "It would be like
al-Qaida having chemical weapons."
Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general, said he believes the risk of
strategic weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaida
linked anti-Assad fighters is quite low. He noted that components of
chemical weapons and their delivery systems, such as missiles or
aircraft, tend to be held in separate locations, and that it would be
difficult for small groups of fighters to assemble all the needed
Israel should not ignore the possible dangers, but also not
exaggerate them, Brom said.
Military analyst Reuven Pedatzur also played down the risk, saying he
believes Israel´s leaders are blowing the Syria threat out of
proportion to distract the Israeli public from pressing domestic
problems, such as protests against deepening poverty and two
desperate Israelis setting themselves on fire this month. An imminent
round of tax increases topped media coverage on Wednesday.
The first time Israel seriously prepared for possible chemical attack
was during the 1991 Gulf War following threats by then-leader Saddam.
The government handed out gas masks and urged Israelis to seal rooms
with tape and plastic sheeting, but in the end Iraq fired several
dozen Scud missiles with conventional warheads.
The lines at a gas mask distribution center Wednesday at a shopping
mall in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion reflected similar
Gas mask filters have a limited life, and the government has
distributed the protective devices off and on over the past two
The Israeli postal service, which distributes gas masks at special
centers, noted a sharp increase in demand this week.
On average, 2,200 masks are handed out per day, but on Monday the
figure rose to 3,700 and on Tuesday to 4,200, said postal service
spokeswoman Merav Lapidot. "I imagine that it is related (to Syria),
because I can´t think of any other reason people would all of a
sudden remember to come," she said.
Some 4.2 million Israelis have masks at home, but the remaining
inventory won´t be enough for a population of nearly 8 million, she
said. "The home front command has said time and again that the budget
has run out ... and there´s not enough money to buy for all."
Hezi Gavish, the owner of a hardware store in the Israeli town of
Katsrin just 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Syrian border, said he
"I think there´s a possibility that Syria and Israel will go to war
because of all the chemical weapons. If Hezbollah gets close to the
chemical weapons, it´s war," Gavish said. _______ Associated Press
writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Blake Sobczak in the Golan
Heights contributed to this report. (© 2012 The Associated Press
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