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Chemical weaponsIsrael’s coming chemical weapons crisis

By Neri Zilber

Published 4 January 2017

One of the more iconic and sobering elements of Israeli reality were the gas masks distributed on the street or at post offices to every citizen after Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. They continued to be distributed until early 2014, when the Israeli government decided to end the practice in the wake of an international deal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Now, nearly three years later, the issue has resurfaced as a direct result of the Syrian civil war—in particular, the threat from both Hezbollah and the Islamic State.

One of the more iconic and sobering elements of Israeli reality were the gas masks distributed on the street or at post offices to every citizen after Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. They continued to be distributed until early 2014, when the Israeli government decided to end the practice in the wake of an international deal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Now, nearly three years later, the issue has resurfaced as a direct result of the Syrian civil war—in particular, the threat from both Hezbollah and the Islamic State.

In August 2013, the Assad regime deployed chemical weapons against the neighborhood of Ghouta near Damascus, asphyxiating to death over a thousand civilians, including women and children. U.S. President Barak Obama threatened a military response and issued an ultimatum to the Syrian government—his notorious “red line”—only to acquiesce to Russian mediation efforts. Under the terms of the brokered deal, Syria’s chemical weapons would be shipped out of the country and destroyed by international monitors. A triumph of diplomacy, some called it at the time.

But problems with the deal emerged almost immediately. Citing Israeli and Western intelligence officials, reports surfaced in April 2014 that the Assad regime was, contrary to the deal, hiding parts of its chemical weapons stockpile as a deterrent against rebel forces. This didn’t stop the U.S., in mid-2014, from proclaiming that Syria was free of chemical weapons. Tellingly, however, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that there remained “important questions with regard to discrepancies and omissions.”

These discrepancies and omissions appear to have come home to roost. In early December, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told European ambassadors in Tel Aviv that Israel would “prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.” Coming on the heels of mysterious air strikes inside Syria, not much was left to the imagination, although in accordance with longstanding policy the Israeli government refused to confirm that it was the responsible party. One day later, Lieberman doubled down on his headline-making statement, telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel “will not allow the smuggling of high-quality advanced weapons and chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah.”

The Netanyahu government has, since the start of the Syrian civil war, tried to keep the hellstorm to