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Israelis Stay Calm, Prepare For Worst As Syria Spillover Risks Rise

Waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel
Waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel
Hadrien Gosset-Bernheim

HAIFA – His pack is ready: spare clothing, two clean uniforms, his combat boots and a charger for his smartphone. If he is called, Haim Halévy, a 32-year-old from Haifa, will only have a few hours to join his field regiment stationed on the Golan Heights. The fateful phone call may arrive today, tomorrow, in a week or maybe never.

Since Barack Obama announced on Saturday his decision to seek Congressial approval to conduct American strikes in Syria, this Israel Defense Forces reservist, a certified public accountant in civilian life, does not really know what to think anymore.

“The worst part of it in this interim period is not knowing what fate has in store for you,” explains Halevy, who is used to being mobilized each time Israel’s northern border is placed on high alert.

Let’s just say that for him, as for the rest of Israel, the coming days and the Jewish New Year's celebration of Rosh Hashana, which starts on Wednesday evening, are likely to consist of a lot of waiting.

Since the beginning of the most recent crisis sparked by the accusations of chemical weapons use by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and the international community’s balking in mounting a response, Israel is worried about getting drawn into the conflict. It is true that Syria, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have been multiplying statements to announce that in case of American strikes, Israel will be “wiped out” by thousands of missiles.

Trust yourself

In the face of such threats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Israel confident, but on-the-ready. "Our fellow citizens know we are prepared for any scenario. Our enemies have good reasons not to test us. And they also know why,” he declared Sunday morning in reaction to the delay announced the day before by the White House.

The American decision was seen as a climb down by the Israeli public opinion, which is always suspicious towards Barack Obama. “The Americans, who keep explaining to us why we should let them deal with the Iranian threat, just shot themselves in the foot,” a top official of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “What is happening proves that in case of danger, Israel can only count on itself.”

The business-as-usual atmosphere that the Israeli authorities are trying to inspire does not, however, prevent the Israel Defense Forces from being placed on maximum alert and the already mobilized reservists have still not been sent back home. And for those who still have doubts, the deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile battery system on the outskirts of large cities shows that the threat of a conflagration in the region is taken very seriously by Jerusalem.

On Saturday, the installation of one of these batteries in a Ramat Gan park, near Tel Aviv, was actually the main attraction of the day, bringing dozens of onlookers to look at the system that is supposed to protect them against possible missiles. A way to stave off boredom for the young, on-duty soldiers standing in the heat, who found themselves overwhelmed by fruit juice, biscuits and even sushi brought over by supportive neighbors.

Launched with notable success during the operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza last November, the Iron Dome system has become an essential element of Israel’s strategy: Sure of its military superiority, the Jewish State knows that the protection of its large cities’ inhabitants, now consistently targeted during periods of conflict, is its Achilles’ heel.

To be sure of that, one just needed to see the crowd still rushing this weekend outside the gas mask distribution center in Ramat Aviv, a comfortable neighborhood in northern Tel Aviv. If the atmosphere was a little calmer these last days, the crowd still had to wait several hours before receiving the precious piece of equipment.

Ever since they saw the vulnerability of their hinterlands during the second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Israeli authorities swore they would not make the same mistake again. According to official figures, 60% of the population, and up to 85% in the center of the country, is now equipped with a chemical attack protection kit. But this did not prevent Israelis discovering to their horror the disarray of gas mask distribution procedures and the deplorable condition of some of the bomb shelters.

Despite the controversy set off, the government and the army refuse to set up additional measures. They say it is pointless to cause panic when the chances that Assad attacking Israel are considered very “slim.”

Still, nothing will stop them from preparing for the worst.

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