Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Let the games begin...

The war games, that is.

Next week Israel starts “Turning Point Three”, billed as the ‘largest nationwide military exercise ever held in Israel”, designed to prepare every Israeli citizen for all-out war.

The five day war games will present a situation in which Israel is first attacked by Hamas from Aza on the west, then by Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north, with Syria joining in. Then Israel’s own Arabs will riot from within, all coupled with as many terror attacks as our ‘peace-making’ neighbors can muster. The anticipation is that we’ll be battling on several different fronts, all at the same time.

Also thrown in for good measure: a “natural disaster”, missiles hitting all over the Jewish state, an operational problem at the HazMat (hazardous materials) facility, plus an epidemic.

The Air Force is also using the occasion to practice for “challenges” presented by Iran, as they launch their Seji-2, the 2000 klm missile. (2000 klm is about 1262 miles. Jerusalem is 750 miles from Teheran.)

Tell me when we’re having fun.

It’s an Israeli thing, of course, to remember all the wars one has lived through. I’ve already got several under my belt – and that’s not even counting the Intifada, when I arrived in 2002, when cafes, buses and party halls were being blown up left and right.

My first experience with the horror or actual war came almost immediately, early in 2003, when we were all required to go to distribution centers and pick up our “protective kits”, better known as gas masks. Why? Because the US was starting its assault on Iraq, and the thinking at the time was that some of the interested parties would then attack Israel.

There were all kinds of precautions to be taken – people stood in line to buy plastic sheeting to staple over their windows. Water and food was being stored, ‘safe rooms’ cleared and ready for occupancy again.

All this was old hat, of course, to people who were here during the Gulf War, in 1991, when people actually did enter their sealed rooms and stayed there, waiting to be gassed. I missed that one, so it was all new to me.

In February, 2003, we all received mailed notices that set appointments to go pick up our gas masks, better known in officialdom as “protective kits”. My distribution center was in the basement of a shopping mall – and what a scene it was. Hundreds of people, men women and children, milled around, waiting for their designated time and location. Long tables, marked with letters of the alph-bet, were set up, each staffed by IDF soldiers. Behind each table stood mountains of ‘protective kits’.

The idea was to find the table where the list with your name was located, present your ID papers, and get your mask. It wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds, because there were different sizes of masks for adults and gear for children of various ages, but all in all, it went fairly smoothly. It took a couple of hours – which is considered fast, when you’re dealing with Israeli bureaucracy.

Here’s what the ‘protective kit’ looks like.

You’ll notice the strap – that was so you could carry it everywhere you went, which is precisely what you were supposed to do. Never be without it.

I took mine home and kept it there. Worse than that – as you can see -- I never even opened the box.

It wasn’t any sort of bravado – exactly the opposite. It was just too terrifying.

At the time, everyone was talking about the trauma of opening the kit. The masks had to be fitted individually, so the idea was that you’d first open it, get all the straps set to fit your own head, so then it would be ready the instant you needed it.

Someone in the Jerusalem Post wrote a gallows-humor piece at the time about how scary the situation was. “Before opening the kit,” he wrote, “it is advisable to begin by consuming at least one stiff drink.”

I probably did the “stiff drink” part, but never progressed beyond that.

To some degree, the whole hysteria reminded me of my early days in elementary school in Buxton, North Dakota. I was part of the ‘duck and cover’ generation, where we had Civil Defense drills in which we “ducked” under our school desks and “covered” our eyes, to save ourselves from sure death when Russia launched The Big One.

Even at the time, I think we kids thought it was a little silly – I’m not sure we grasped the situation as a whole, but lots of us – me included – already had fallout shelters at home. What we had was just an underground earthen potato cellar, but nevertheless, we’d stocked it with all the basics – food and water (not to mention dog and cat food) blankets, a first aid kit, flashlights and candles. I remember putting in a Monopoly game – sort of odd, considering that I’m an only child and my dog Penny never learned how to roll the dice, let alone stop chewing on the hotels. I guess I was thinking that maybe then, someone else would have time to play with me.

But the thing was, if we needed all that protection at home to withstand nuclear destruction, then how was crawling under our desks at school going to work?

Much of that reasoning stuck with me in Israel. Was I really going to sit in one of my rooms, gas mask on my face, plastic over the windows, and think I’d survive deadly gas all around me? No. I didn’t. So what was the point?

Bottom line: I deferred opening the kit. Day after day I put it off. I didn’t bother carrying it, either – but the truth is, not many people did. I suspect I wasn’t the only cynic out there.

In 2003, the anticipated confrontation lasted only a couple of weeks, and then everything went back to whatever passes for normal around here.

A couple of years ago, all the gas masks were supposed to have been recollected, but no one ever came to get mine, so I still have it.

We’re supposed to be issued new ones by the end of this year. So? Here we go again.

More next week about what the drill is like – for us in the South, it will probably feel familiar. The sirens will sound, my dogs will howl, some of us who have sheltered rooms will run for them. The rest of us will probably just keep on doing what we were doing.

This is, after all, just practice. I’ll worry about the real thing some other day.

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