News reporters swarmed the Israel Postal Company headquarters in Tel Aviv today, where dozens of Israelis waited impatiently in a creatively formed line to claim their government-supplied gas masks.
Little kids played with mask kits in the windy heat, as their parents sweated and strained to hear postal workers call ticket numbers over the roar of the media inquisition.
"No, we want the baby in there!" shouted the camera guy for one German TV news station, as the newscaster set his forehead to extra-grim, preparing to interview a young couple in line with their little girl. "She's a star," the mother, Neta Palombo-Carmel, told me, laughing.
To the news camera, she said: "We're here to get a mask for our one-year-old baby... who will hopefully [live through] her second war so far."
Although gas masks are available for Israeli residents year-round, the impending U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war has put Israel under more immediate threat, and has set in motion an all-out raid of the Israel Post's mask supply. In an act of typical nonchalance toward raging conflicts in the region, a cool 62 percent of Tel Aviv residents and 30 percent of Jerusalem residents previously had a mask in possession; however, the number of mask pickups doubled on Sunday and Monday compared to last week, and phone inquiries quadrupled, according to an Israel Post spokesperson.
"It's kind of a feeling of emergency," said Palombo-Carmel, mentioning the last-minute Israeli security cabinet meeting held today. Her husband, Erez, added: "It feels like it's going to be something real during this weekend."
Government officials in both Syria and Iran warned yesterday that if the U.S. punishes Syria for an apparent chemical-weapons attack in Damascus last week that killed hundreds, it will be Israel — that small yet symbolic island of Western values in the Middle East — who will bear the consequences.
When horrific photos and videos of frothing, seizing and lifeless Syrians poured out of Damascus last Wednesday, we could almost smell the chemical weapons from here. "I'd rather have this [mask] in my house and not end up in a picture like that," said Julie Gray, a former Los Angeles resident who made Aliyah to Israel a year-and-a-half ago. She came to pick up her mask at the post office today, despite skepticism from her Israeli boyfriend.
"Just knowing that Obama is under a little pressure, and then Kerry's words, and then Syria saying, 'We will hit Israel' — I was like 1, 2, 3, that's enough, I'm getting a mask. Of course my boyfriend, who's Israeli, says, 'Welcome to Israel, calm down, deep breath.'"
Another young father in line, Ido Shemer, said the only reason he came to the post office was because "I have a little child, so my wife sent me." He added that he was not worried at all about the threats from Syria and Iran. "In Israel, you know, everything is... " he trailed off, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. "We've already been in this situation in the past, with Iraq."
For some perspective: The civil war in Syria is so physically close to home that, for instance, Birthright leaders have been swinging their tour buses a couple hours north this summer to watch explosions over the Syrian border, like sick killer fireworks. So while many Israelis may be brushing off the nearby threat as Mideast-unrest-as-usual, there does seem to be a growing awareness of the psychotic madman next door.
"As an American, I think we should [intervene in Syria] — I think it's our moral duty, and we should have done it before," said Gray. "But I live here. It's a conflict. But I would say, scared as I am, with my mask at my side, I would rather we did it, because this is a holocaust, and to do nothing is reprehensible."
Although there did not appear to be any shortage at the Tel Aviv pickup location, foreigners in Israel have worked themselves into sort of a panic about the gas-mask situation. One American dude at the wrong post-office entrance could be heard shouting, "Maskim! Maskim!" at the confused security guard this morning, and Tablet Magazine found another guy freaking out on Twitter.
However, as evidenced by the overzealous media turnout at the post office today, this clamor is mostly just outsiders and journalists wanting to make a big deal about something Israelis long ago came to terms with. Gas-mask pickup is just another stupid chore on a hot windy day.