JERUSALEM — Fearing the fallout of a possible U.S. strike on Syria could spill across their northern border and drag the Jewish state into the conflict, Israelis scurried Tuesday to replace their old gas masks.
"Since the beginning of the week there has been a significant rise in the number of calls to our inquiry center, a fourfold increase," a spokeswoman for the Israel Postal Service which distributes the gas masks told AFP.
She said actual orders for masks to be delivered by courier were up 300 percent compared to "normal" days, and added that there was also an uptick in numbers of people visiting distribution centers, but she gave no figures for the visits.
Speaking to AFP at a Jerusalem shopping mall where he was waiting in line to replace his old mask, Eli Carmon assured AFP that he was "not acting out of pressure.
"I'm not afraid of anything, the masks need to be replaced sometime and now is that time — why not now if there's that attack," he said in reference to the possibility of U.S. military action that might motivate Syria to attack Israel.
Carrying a large pile of masks in cardboard boxes for herself and her family, Rebecca Burkat told AFP she was "not afraid" of the possible ramifications of an attack on Syria.
"I'm just doing what needs to be done," she said.
Gas masks were first distributed to the general public during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait when Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel as the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm.
Israeli experts however, said that the danger of a similar attack by the regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad or its Lebanese proxies Hezbollah was low.
"The possibility that the president of Syria would turn to an attack against Israel looks low, but the defense establishment is prepared for the eventuality," public radio's veteran military affairs correspondent Carmela Menashe said.
And Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on Monday "it would be insane for Assad to try to attack Israel."
Steinitz stressed Israel would only "interfere" in Syria if the Jewish state came "under attack."
Washington warned Syria on Monday it would face action over the "moral obscenity" of a chemical weapons attack last week that independent medical agency Doctors Without Borders said left 355 people dead from "neurotoxic symptoms."
Assad denies his forces were responsible but there are growing reports that Washington and its allies are preparing to launch a punitive cruise missile strike.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, said that if Syria or anyone else were to attack the Jewish state the consequences would be clear.
"If and when Israel is attacked we shall react, that's not new," he told public radio. "If we respond we shall respond seriously, as all our enemies in the region know."
Israel says Hezbollah has some 60,000 rockets and missiles aimed at it from neighboring Lebanon.
In July 2006, Israel and the Shiite organization fought a bloody 33-day war, during which the Jewish state's arch-foe fired thousands of missiles over the border.
The fighting devastated parts of Lebanon and killed 1,200 people there, mainly civilians. Sixty Israelis — 41 civilians and 19 soldiers — also died.
Menashe said that the Israeli security establishment's assessment is that Hezbollah faces domestic opposition to embroiling Lebanon in another devastating conflict.
"Israel is prepared for the possibility of other players, such as Hezbollah, acting from Lebanon," she said. "That possibility is also low . . . mainly because of opposition within Lebanon to Hezbollah's activity and its involvement in Syria."
Hezbollah has been fighting for months alongside Assad loyalists, triggering revenge bomb attacks in its Beirut bastion.
She and other experts said Israel would warn it in advance if it acts.
A senior Israeli defense delegation visited the White House on Monday for high-level talks on the escalating crisis in Syria and the West's showdown with Iran over its nuclear program.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice met her outgoing Israeli counterpart Yaakov Amidror for talks centered on "Iran, Egypt, Syria, and a range of other regional security issues," a U.S. official said.
© AFP 2013