Fears of Syria secret chemicals send Israelis running for gas masks
"You've got to be prepared for anything with what's going on in Syria," said Benny Rahamim, one of a growing number of Israelis picking up gas masks as fears grow over Syria's chemical weapons.
Rahamim, 36, was visiting a mall in the dormitory town of Mevasseret Tzion, just outside Jerusalem, one of many locations nationwide where the postal service runs distribution centres for gas masks.
He left the mall with six boxes containing gas masks for himself, his wife and four children.
"The situation is worrying, with the Iranian threats, instability in Syria, and everything that happens in the Arab world," he said.
Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, which Damascus has acknowledged for the first time, is decades old and among the biggest in the Middle East, but experts are divided over its exact nature.
President Bashar al-Assad's regime caused a global uproar Monday when it vowed to use its chemical weapons if attacked by outsiders, although not against its own people.
But public data about the stockpile is scarce, as Syria is one of the few countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Syrian rebels have accused President Bashar al-Assad of moving some of his chemical weapons into border regions, prompting Israeli officials to warn that he could transfer them to the Shiite Hezbollah militia in neighbouring Lebanon or to other radical groups hostile to Israel operating in the region.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has stressed that Israel would consider the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hezbollah a "casus belli" and act "without hesitation or restraint."
Israel's armed forces chief told MPs on Tuesday that fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels had reached the strategic Golan Heights plateau, part of which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.
"Battles are taking place before our eyes in the Golan area," Lieutenant General Benny Gantz told members of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee.
Such talk has further jangled Israeli nerves already strained by fears of a possible Iranian nuclear threat and speculation on whether the Jewish state plans a pre-emptive strike on the Islamic republic's nuclear facilities.
Israel began general distribution of gas mask kits in 2010 saying it was a general precaution not linked to any "precise current threat."
The kits contain masks, a filter, and a drinking tube to allow consumption of fluids without uncovering the face, but do not include protective all-body suits and would therefore be of little use against the many chemical or biological weapons absorbed through the skin.
Nevertheless as the tone of public debate rises, postal service spokeswoman Merav Lapidot said that demand has soared.
"Instead of 2,000 daily requests, we have distributed nearly double during the past two days," she said. "But people do not tell us what led them to get their gas masks."
In Mevasseret Tzion on Wednesday, service was brisk, with people waiting only a few minutes to receive their kits.
"There were adverts in the newspaper about the distribution, so I came to take masks for the entire family," said a young mother who gave only her first name, Yifat, describing herself as "very worried".
"How can we not be concerned, with everything that's going around us?" she asked. "Having gas masks at home, it's part of the life of every Israeli."
Staff at the distribution centres wear shirts with the slogan, "Protective kits - you chose life."
After checking each applicant's identity card they hand over the sealed beige cardboard boxes while video screens continuously show instructions for use.
Gas masks were first distributed to the general public during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait when then dictator Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles armed with conventional warheads at Israel.
Zeev Bielsky, who heads the parliamentary committee for home front preparedness, said on Wednesday that everyone should receive a gas mask soon.
"Budgets have been provided by the government and each Israeli should receive a gas mask," he said.