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Gas Masks, Protective Structures Inaccessible to Millions of Israelis: Lawmaker

A key Israeli lawmaker on Thursday said millions of his country's inhabitants lack access to defenses against gas or air attacks, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, Dec. 14, 2011).

"Today, only 60 percent of Israelis -- 4.5 to 5 million people -- have gas masks," Zeev Bielsky, leader of the Israeli legislature's home front preparedness panel, said in an interview.

No protective structures against bomb strikes are within reach of roughly 400,000 Israeli residences, Bielsky added.

"There are currently 1.7 million citizens without any protection from bombs, or shelters," the opposition lawmaker said. "We must be prepared at any moment for any possible scenario, and today we are completely unprepared."

The gas mask shortfall stems from a lack of public spending on Israel's two sites for manufacturing the devices, he argued.

Given the instability now pervading areas around Israel, "and especially in light of the condition in Syria, it is wanton disregard that the government is not providing this basic product, which every citizen should have," Bielsky said (see GSN, March 7). Even if the assembly facilities received the $343 million needed to compensate for the funding deficiency, Israel would require no fewer than 24 months to address the gas-mask scarcity, he added.

Then-Israeli armed forces planning chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in January said "huge stockpiles of chemicals, biologicals (weapons), strategic capabilities [...] are still going into Syria" (see GSN, Jan. 18).

It is unclear who would gain control of the armaments should the Syrian government collapse, the officer said.  "That's a major concern, because I don't know who is going to own those the day after," he said (see related GSN story, today).

Israeli Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai "alerted the government on the issue in numerous Cabinet meetings, and in addition asked [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and [the] Finance Ministry to allocate additional funds to produce more gas masks for the entire population," a representative of Vilnai's office said in provided remarks.

"All of the minister's requests were turned down by the Finance Ministry due to budgetary considerations," the official said. The Finance Ministry stated it "had not received similar claims from the relevant personnel in the Defense Ministry -- the body in charge of funding the home front -- regarding missing funds," he said.

Israel's mail service indicated it has delivered roughly 4 million gas masks to Israelis and now possesses fewer than 100,000 for dispersal.

"This is all we have. It is not enough for all Israeli citizens. When we have more, we'll distribute more," Israel Post spokeswoman Merav Lapidot said. Lapidot said she did not know when more masks could arrive (Agence France-Presse, March 8).

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