TEL AVIVIsrael braced for fallout from a potential U.S. attack in Syria, as civilians flooded gas mask distribution centers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held special consultations with defense chiefs and cabinet ministers on the Syria war at its border.
As Western governments step up accusations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against his opponents last week in a Damascus suburb, Israelis grow increasingly anxious that the Syrian leader could target the Jewish state in an act of desperation.
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The nervousness comes despite assessments by Israeli security experts that the prospect of Syria retaliating against Israel in the wake of any U.S. attack is low because Mr. Assad is fully engaged in battling rebels.
A spokeswoman for the Israel postal service, which handles gas mask distribution on behalf of the Israel Defense Force's Home Front Command, said that distribution and telephone orders on Tuesday grew threefold from last week. Telephone hotline inquiries about gas masks grew fourfold.
In a scene reminiscent of atmosphere in Israel before the first and second Iraq wars, a group of dozens of Israelis waited under a sweltering afternoon sun on Tuesday at a Tel Aviv post office to get the military-issued gas masks.
"[Assad] dumped chemical weapons on his own people, so what's going to prevent him from dumping them on us?'' said Amir Cohen, a 66-year-old tour group operator outside the post office. "We've been through it all beforethe gas masks, the sealed rooms. We have to take it seriously.''
Israel has sought throughout the Syrian civil war to remain neutral and avoid any perception of intervention. But on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to call for an intervention in Syria when he joined Western leaders in accusing Damascus of using chemical weapons and said "it must not continue.''
Mr. Netanyahu remarks on Syria since the alleged chemical attack has also sought draw attention to Syria's ally, Iran. He alleges that Tehranwhich Israel and the U.S. accuse of seeking to build a nuclear weaponis guiding Mr. Assad in the civil war and is sizing up the West's response to reports of chemical weapons attack in preparation for a future showdown.
After huddling with cabinet ministers on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated that Israel wants to stay out of Syria's civil war, and tried to deter Damascus from attacking Israel. "If we detect any sort of attempt to attack us, we will respond, and respond forcefully,'' he said.
Israelis have grappled with similar scares in the past. They spent much of the 1991 Gulf War huddling in bomb shelters bracing for chemical war heads as Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles at the Jewish state, though the threat of a nonconventional attack never materialized.
At the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the government instructed Israelis to take gas mask kits with them to school and work in case of a chemical attack. No missiles were fired at Israel in that war.
The prevailing assessment of many Israeli security and regional experts is that the Syrian regime, despite veiled threats of an attack on Israel, is unlikely to attack the Jewish state in order to avoid having to fight on another front and risk losing to the rebels. The experts also don't expect the U.S. intervention to topple Mr. Assad.
"Assad knows that the balance of power in Syria now is in his favor,'' said Amos Yadlin, the former chief of Israeli military intelligence in an interview with Israel Radio. "Any outside interventionespecially from Israelwill play against him.
"Therefore, until Bashar Assad thinks his regime is facing a collapse from an American attackand I don't foresee one on such a scalethe chance of him trying to involve Israel is very low," he said. "We still need to prepare for that possibility.''
A version of this article appeared August 28, 2013, on page A10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Israel Fears Backlash From Attack Next Door.