Israel's Gas-Mask Distribution Problem

Iraq's unprovoked attacks on Israel have so far involved Scud missiles armed with conventional high-explosive warheads. But neither the Israeli government nor anyone else familiar with Saddam Hussein's contempt for civilized norms of behavior is ruling out the possibility of attacks with chemical weapons. It may be that the only thing that has prevented him from using such weapons so far is the lack of a feasible delivery system. Most Western experts think that Iraq doesn't yet have the technology for putting warheads armed with poison gas or nerve agents aboard Scuds. It can carry such weapons on its bombers, but Israel's formidable air force and anti-aircraft missile defenses can probably easily handle that threat.

Beginning several weeks ago, the Israeli government prudently began distributing gas-mask kits to its populace. But not all who live under Jerusalem's authority have received these kits. More than 1 million Arab residents of the occupied territories are still without them. Recently Israel's supreme court ordered expedited distribution of free gas-mask kits to the Palestinians. Was the earlier failure to make that distribution evidence of callous official disregard for Palestinian safety, as some have been quick to charge? The issue is by no means that simple.

Gas-mask distribution throughout Israel was calculated according to estimates--based in part on Saddam Hussein's own prewar threats--of where the threat to the population was greatest. First call was given to the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal area, with its heavy and largely Jewish population density, as well as to Jerusalem, the second-largest city. Smaller urban areas were next given priority, followed by rural areas in Israel proper and finally the occupied territories. Experience has shown the soundness of this ranking. It is Israel's citizens who are most at threat from Iraq's outlawed weapons, not the Palestinians in the West Bank, who are Saddam's partisans.

Israel manufactures gas-mask kits, but demand has outrun supply. Kits are being imported, but with every member of the armed forces assigned to the anti-Iraq coalition requiring a kit as well as millions of civilians in Saudi Arabia, manufacturing capacity has been strained. There have been reports, for example, that the Saudis have withheld the kits from those Arab workers in the country who are not Saudi citizens.

Nonetheless, as Israel's supreme court has recognized, the government has a responsibility to the Arabs living under its authority. Efforts should be stepped up to buy and distribute gas-mask kits to this population. Perhaps the Arab oil producing states that used to contribute so generously to the Palestine Liberation Organization, now Iraq's ally, will want to help pay for that effort.

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