Israel calls up reserve troops as crowds queue for gas masks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 1:53am

Israel ordered a special call-up of reserve troops yesterday as nervous citizens lined up at gas-mask distribution centres, preparing for possible hostilities with Syria.

With the US threatening to attack Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, Israel fears that Syria may respond by firing missiles at Israel, a close American ally. While Israeli officials sought to distance themselves from Syria's standoff with the West and believe the chances of a Syrian strike remain slim, people were clearly preparing for the possibility.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the day with his top security advisers discussing the situation. Afterwards, he sent a mixed message, urging people to remain calm while also approving special precautionary measures.

"There is no reason to change daily routines," he said. "At the same time we are prepared for any scenario."

He said the Israeli military "is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens".

An Israeli official said the government had ordered a "limited" call-up of reserve units to beef up civil defence preparations and to operate air-defence units near the border.

A military official said several hundred troops were being mobilised, though there was authorisation to call up thousands more if needed.

Earlier, defence officials had confirmed the deployment of Iron Dome and Patriot missile-defence batteries in areas near the Syrian border.

Israel uses US-made Patriot missile defence batteries against medium-range missiles, and the Iron Dome system is designed to intercept rockets fired from short distances of up to 70 kilometres.

Large crowds gathered at gas-mask distribution centres across the country, waiting in long lines for protection kits.

Israeli demand for gas masks has tripled in recent days, said Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution. About five million Israelis, roughly 60 per cent of the population, now have gas masks, she said. All citizens are eligible for the kits.

A large crowd formed at a Tel Aviv distribution centre yesterday, where Galia Cohen was among those waiting for hours to collect free masks.

"I have two children and I am afraid for my children," she said.

Sivan Yehieli, chairman of a civilian emergency response committee along the northern border with Syria and Lebanon, said towns were readying bomb shelters and drilling school children on how to flee to shelters.

"The citizens need to be prepared just like the army," said Yehieli. "We don't want to find ourselves surprised."