OFAKIM, Israel -- The Israeli military began yesterday handing out the first gas masks and chemical-warfare defense kits that it plans to distribute to each of Israel's 4.5 million citizens in the next two months.
In Ofakim, a town of 14,000 people, the army turned two elementary schools into gas-mask distribution centers.
In one classroom where families had gathered, a 3-year-old boy with blond curls burst into terrified tears while two female soldiers gently tried to fit a gas mask over his head.
"I don't want to wear it. I want to be a ninja," he sobbed at his mother. Other young children, brought to the school by their parents to hear the army talk about the protective gear, stared without speaking at the baby tents, hoods, masks, filters, powders and anti-nerve-gas syringes arrayed on a table.
"The important thing is to keep this equipment safe," a reserve officer told a group of adults and children sitting in rows on the classroom's tiny chairs. "Don't touch the equipment. Treat it with more care and value than you would treat gold." Israelis are forbidden by law from opening the kits they take home until an emergency is declared by the army.
In the last two weeks, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has threatened to strike at Israel if economic sanctions choke his country. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Israel was handing out gas masks because "Hussein has made his threats many times, and we must take his threats seriously."
A month ago, the army steadfastly refused to pass out the gas masks, despite pressure from some politicians and the public. But growing concern over the threat of Iraqi chemical weapons evidently helped to change the mind of army officials.
At a later date, the nearly 2 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip will be able, for $20, to buy kits similar to those given to Israeli citizens. Officials said that citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, had paid for their kits through their taxes.
The government here has said that all hotels will be given gas masks for tourists, but it is unlikely that this step will help rescue the tourism industry, which has been badly hurt by the gulf crisis.
The distribution plan began yesterday in two towns and one collective farm. The army said it wanted to test the disbursement procedures with the 30,000 residents of Ofakim, Kfar Yona and Yokneam before moving on to larger urban areas.