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On the ground in Israel: What do we do if Syria does use chemical weapons against us?

by Simone Wilson

August 28, 2013 | 3:25 pm

An Israeli girl guards her family's gas masks

If the march to claim gas masks was reluctant yesterday, it took on a definite urgency today — with reported hours-long wait times, dwindling supplies and a fresh new storm of international media heckling innocents in line. And the escalating panic can, no doubt, be attributed to widespread reports that President Obama could strike Syria as early as Thursday, and the fact both Syria and Iran have promised to set Israel on fire in return.

Still, on the streets of Tel Aviv, despite the gas-mask clamor, Israelis appear confident and outwardly calm: Startup bros can be spotted scheming in coffee shops per usual; fireworks are popping on the Jaffa horizon; the heroin addicts beneath my apartment continue to not care about anything but heroin.

We all know where our nearest bomb shelters are (Hebrew map here), and are fully prepared to use them, just like back in November. But there is one question I can't seem to get answered, no matter how many government ministries I pester: What is the emergency protocol in case of a chemical attack?

A representative for the Ministry of Defense did the "I'll call you back" thing all day long. I was on hold with the Home Front Command hotline for over an hour, listening to '80s music in Hebrew until a lady picked up and told me they'd call me back (that was hours ago). The closest thing I could find to instructions posted online was a terrifying description on the Home Front Command's website of how it feels to get gassed. And my Israeli friends made fun of me for even asking.

"There is no reason to change daily routines," Prime Minister Netanyahu said after a security meeting today. “In the face of these threats, we are acting responsibly and considerately but we are also saying loud and clear: whoever dares to test us will face the might of the IDF," said Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon.

But what about the "testing us" part?

After a long day of many questions and few answers, the Times of Israel's David Horovitz noted, too, that the Israeli government's cocky press conferences — on how Syria is too afraid to attack, how prepared Israel is and how hard Syria is going down if they try anything — would be nicely complemented by a full supply of gas masks and proper instructions on how to prepare and react. He wrote:

The best way to ensure that the public stays calm is to provide clear, credible information, to acknowledge when a situation is so uncertain as to render any predictions pointless, and crucially to plan ahead so that citizens are as well protected as possible from the unpredictable. Simply telling people to stay calm when those conditions have not been met is almost guaranteed to ensure the opposite result.

On Secret Tel Aviv, a popular English-language Facebook group with over 16,000 members, foreigners posted frantic questions about where to get a gas mask if you're not an Israeli citizen, what to do if a siren goes off while you're at a nightclub and even where to find gas masks for dogs. The Israelis in the group, meanwhile, had a total field day with the jitters of the ex-pats, posting photos of gas masks with bong chambers and inviting foreign chicks to rooftop parties where they'll get a free shot every time a siren goes off.

You see what we're working with here.

So in the absence of any official government advice, I contacted a couple chemical-weapons experts from the U.K. Here's what they had to say.

Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World — a magazine that covers biological and chemical weapons — said that although he believes a Syrian attack on Israel would probably initially involve "more of the rocket stuff" from Assad and other Israel-haters in the region, a chemical-weapons attack "isn't far-fetched."

Winfield speculated, based on photo and video evidence out of Syria, that the chemical weapons Assad appeared to use on his citizens last week was either sarin or "another home-brew organophosphate agent." If Syrian officials were to send over a similar type of nerve agent to Israel, he said, "they'd most likely send them as a liquid-filled rocket" that would disperse very quickly, due to the agent's high "volatility."

In this case, according to Winfield, the gas masks being handed out by the Israeli government would "probably" be enough to keep the majority of residents safe from the gas, especially if they were also closed into a sealed room.

However, a less volatile and more severe nerve agent like VX (which Assad reportedly has his hands on) could "hang around like tiny little droplets" and come into contact with people's skin, he said — sinking into their bodies and making the gas masks sort of futile.

Professor Alastair Hay, who teaches environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds and has helped conduct six international chemical-weapons investigations (including one in Iraq), explained to me that the severity of a chemical attack would depend very much on the quantity released and the speed of the wind (slower being more deadly). He recommended staying "as high up as possible, and down-wind."

Just so we all know what we're dealing with, here are the symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent, via the Home Front Command:

Symptoms of nerve gas injury include (in the order of their appearance): runny nose, chest pressure, blurred sight, difficulty in breathing, increased sweating, nausea and vomiting. The appearance of at least two of these symptoms is an indication of such an injury.

A person stricken with nerve gas loses control over the muscles of his body, convulses, sweats and loses sphincter control. The action of nerve gas is relatively swift. The reason for death is usually respiratory or cardiac arrest. Most nerve gases enter the body through the respiratory system.

The only other information I could find, through Secret Tel Aviv, was this gas-mask guide from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. Other than that, I guess we all better just grow a thick Israeli skin before Assad gets around to doing the unthinkable.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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