Israel’s coming chemical weapons crisis

its northeast at arm’s length. But one exception, as Lieberman made clear, is any attempt by Hezbollah to alter the existing balance of power. “Hezbollah holding strategic weapons is a problem not just for Israel but the region and the entire Western world,” one senior Israeli military officer recently told me. “It can easily be a reason for a ‘dynamic of escalation’”—that is, war. If he were to give one piece of advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the officer added, it would be “keep an eye on Hezbollah if you want a stable Middle East, and if you want to achieve something in Syria.”

The officer was speaking at an annual intelligence briefing for foreign journalists in a conference room high above the Israel Defense Forces’ Tel Aviv headquarters. An overview of the major milestones of 2016—as the IDF saw it—flashed on flat-screen televisions. Interspersed between Brexit, Donald Trump, and Aleppo, one ostensibly less momentous event caught the eye: the use of chemical weapons by ISIS in Iraq.

While reports only surfaced this past year, by one estimate the group has deployed crude chemical weapons on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq 52 times since 2014—including, in at least one instance, against U.S. soldiers. ISIS indeed has a presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights bordering Israel, but not until recently has it attacked the Jewish state.

That changed in late November, when fighters from the ISIS franchise in the area (usually referred to as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) fired on an IDF border patrol. Despite the fact that no Israeli soldiers were injured and the terrorists were killed by return fire, and despite the fact that it wasn’t, according to the senior officer, a pre-planned attack, it did mark a watershed. The event goes some way toward explaining why the use of chemical weapons in Iraq by ISIS made it into the IDF’s annual summary a few weeks later.

Israel, for its part, is taking notice—and making it clear that it is taking notice. The country’s leading news website, Ynet, published an article in late December about an elite IDF engineering unit tasked, among other delicate missions, with defending Israel against the use of chemical weapons. Based on the large number of official training pictures—gas masks and all—embedded in the article, it was clear that the authorities granted Ynet special access.

“The assessment by the defense establishment is that terrorist elements are trying to get their hands on unconventional weapons, abandoned in the field by the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the northern border,” the article stated. This was the reason for the unit’s expansion and new training program. When Israel stopped distributing gas masks to its civilians three years ago, it was viewed as a small, rare positive development in the Syrian civil war. That decision may now join the gruesome conflict’s expanding list of losses.

Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya. This article is published courtesy of The Tower