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Israelis get gas masks, shelters in order

Military experts say missile strikes could be launched on Israeli cities if the government makes good on its threats to attack Iran over its nuclear program.

August 27, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • An Israeli woman collects her family's gas mask kits at a distribution center in a mall in Jerusalem last week.
An Israeli woman collects her family's gas mask kits at a distribution… (Jim Hollander, European…)

JERUSALEM — With his wife expecting their third child next month, Ram Gilboa, a sports commentator who lives just outside Tel Aviv, recently found himself jotting down a list of baby supplies that friends and family could buy: a crib, diapers ... gas mask.

"That's not normal," Gilboa, 32, recalled with a nervous laugh. "When you're making a list of gifts for a baby, gas mask is not supposed to be on it."

With speculation lingering over a possible war with Iran, even battle-hardened Israelis — who insist they've seen and survived it all — are starting to make contingency plans.

Many are clearing out the accumulated junk from basement bomb shelters they've been using for storage, checking seals on safe-room windows in their apartments and stocking up on emergency supplies. Some are thinking about leaving the country or sending children abroad to avoid what some military experts predict could be an avalanche of missile strikes against Israeli cities if the government makes good on its threat to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.

"Everyone is talking about it all the time," Gilboa said. "The waiting is the hardest part." He says he's made arrangements to pick up a gas protection suit for his soon-to-arrive infant, but has noticed with concern that the delivery hospital is next door to a military compound. "I just hope they don't start the war while the baby is being delivered."

Bomb-shelter contractors say their business took off this month after Israeli government officials resumed their rhetoric regarding Iran.

Israel, believed to be the region's only nuclear power, fears Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb to use against it; Iran, whose president this month declared that Israel's existence was an "insult to all humanity," insists its program is for civilian purposes.

"Every time there's something on the news or a government official makes a comment, we get more calls," said Danny Avram, head of Ani Mugan ("I Am Protected"), which builds, renovates and inspects bomb shelters and safe rooms.

His website traffic is up 600% in August and he's doing 2.5 times as much business, he said, forcing his crew to work overtime to handle the surge.

Government-funded gas mask distribution centers report a doubling of visits in recent weeks, fueled also by fears about instability in Syria and the fate of that country's chemical weapons.

Though the Israeli media are raising questions about whether the nation's home front is ready for another war, the government says it has invested heavily in public preparedness.

This month it tested a new text-message alert system that warns cellphone users to take cover if they are in an area being targeted by an incoming missile. Television public service messages will start airing soon reminding citizens about how and where to take cover in an emergency.

Yet gaps remain, critics note. Less than half the population has gas masks and only 30% have reinforced safe rooms, officials estimate. More than 25% lack access to a bomb shelter.

In Tel Aviv, probably a primary target of missiles, city officials this month designated 60 underground parking garages to serve as emergency shelters, capable of temporarily shielding 800,000 people, nearly twice the city's population. The move came after critics noted that the city's 241 public bomb shelters could accommodate only about 40,000 people.

In Haifa, city officials say they would use a new underground traffic tunnel as an emergency shelter. Earlier this year, the port city opened the nation's most fortified hospital, which can accommodate hundreds of patients in a specially equipped underground parking lot that doubles as an emergency room.

Tel Aviv officials say they've trained and equipped 500 city workers to serve as emergency firefighters if needed, and have earmarked $135,000 to post new signs directing the public to the closest public shelter.

"We believe we are well organized," said Tel Aviv council member Moshe Tiomkin, chair of the city's security committee. "Of course, the test will be in real time if something happens. God forbid."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

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