The author of Something Sick is Happening in Jerusalem writes about going to a mall in Jerusalem a few days ago and picking up gas masks for his family. His report reminds me of something that happened in the run-up to the first Gulf War, in the late fall of 1990 or very early 1991, before the coalition attack on January 16. I was in the US, not Israel, and I was listening to NPR, and Linda Gradstein was reporting.
The report was about people standing in line waiting to pick up their gas masks before the Gulf War began, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would do what he threatened to do - use chemical weapons against Israel, a threat he made earlier in the year. Suddenly I heard the voices of two people that I knew when I had lived in Israel from July 1987 to July 1989: Sally and Michael Klein-Katz, who were waiting in line to get their gas masks. It was very eerie to hear them being interviewed. During the Gulf War, I spent about $500 on phone calls to Israel, checking on my friends' safety every time I heard about a Scud missile attack. Remember, this was before the widespread use of the internet and email, there were no cellphones, and if you wanted to talk to someone in Israel, you had to pay a lot of money.
I visited Israel right after the Gulf War ended - I was actually flying there on the last day of the war, and the plane's pilot announced to us in the middle of our flight that the ceasefire had been signed between the coalition forces and Iraq. Nonetheless, we picked up gas masks at the airport just in case the war started again.
Then, in 1998, I was on a fellowship studying and doing research in Jerusalem, and once again the US was threatening to attack Iraq. People in Israel were afraid that Saddam would seize the opportunity to attack Israel again, and the government began distributing gas masks and plastic sheets for people to seal a room in their apartments against the threat of poison gas. The gas masks were free for Israeli citizens, but foreigners (like myself) had to buy our own. I went to the Mashbir department store in the center of Jerusalem, and up a few floors to where the masks were being distributed to foreigners. I paid my 200 shekels and took the mask and the plastic sheets home. The US attacked Iraq and bombed for four days, but there was no retaliation against Israel. My gas mask remained in the closet and the plastic sheeting in a corner of the living room. When I left Israel in the summer of 1999 I left my gas mask behind with a friend, who actually went and renewed it for me a few years later. She's long since thrown it away.
I hope that no one in Israel will have to use the gas masks that they're picking up now.