* Israeli miniater says Hezbollah access to arsenal is "red
* Demand for gas masks in Israel
* Syria still in full control of chemical arms
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, July 24 The Syrian government is
still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles,
Israeli defence officials said on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to
calm fears that a non-conventional war could be looming.
Syria's 16-month-old conflict has spread concern that the
chemical arsenal, acknowledged by Damascus for the first time on
Monday, could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese
Islamist group allied to Iran and Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, or that Assad could use then in a desperate last
The Assad government said such weapons are secure and could
be used only as a last resort against Syria's foreign enemies -
an allusion to outside military intervention.
The rhetoric stoked demand in Israel for state-funded gas
masks, which have been distributed over the last few years as
part of the country's wider preparations for a possible showdown
over arch-foe Iran's disputed nuclear programme.
"The worry, of course, is that the (Assad) regime will
destabilise and the control will also destabilise," Amos Gilad,
adviser to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, told Israel Radio.
But he added: "At the moment, the entire non-conventional
weapons system is under the full control of the regime."
Israeli armed forces chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz
concurred that Assad had control of the stockpiles and was also
stepping up security over them.
"To the best of my knowledge, they have not yet reached
negative hands," he told a parliamentary panel on security.
"This does not mean it will not happen," Gantz said. "They
could used them against civilians or transfer specific
components of the weapons to Hezbollah."
Taking a different tone during a visit to Brussels, Israeli
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said any indication that
Syrian chemical or biological weapons were about to reach
Hezbollah would be a "red line" and a "clear casus belli".
"We will act decisively and without hesitation or
restraint. We hope for understanding from the international
community," he told reporters.
SMELL OF WAR
Israel is technically at war with Syria and occupies the
Golan Heights. While they have not traded blows in three
decades, the Assad government's disclosure suggested there would
be no holds barred if its survival were to be threatened by
Underpinning Israel's concerns are holes in its homefront
defences exposed during the 2006 Lebanon war by Hezbollah
rockets. Those rockets are dwarfed by Syria's Scud missiles.
Since being hit by Iraqi Scuds during the 1991 Gulf war,
Israel has required new homes be built with dual-use fortified
rooms that can be sealed off as bomb shelters. But around a
fifth of citizens still lack these or a public shelter in reach.
Gas masks are another precaution. Some critics say the kits,
costing the state $60 to $175 are a pricey item with limited
value against nerve agents.
But Israelis are taking up the offer, just in case.
"There's a smell of chemical weapons in the air, the sense
that a war could be triggered," said Maya Knobler, 65, who
collected masks for herself and her daughter in a shopping mall
in Mevasseret Zion, a town outside Jerusalem.
The Israel Postal Company, which distributes them for the
military, said 3,700 gas masks were handed out on Monday, up
from the daily average of 2,200.
"The increase was without a doubt connected to Syria," said
company spokesman Merav Lapidot.
She said there had been swings in demand in the past and she
knew of no orders to boost supply now. Of Israel's 7.8 million
citizens, 4.2 million had been kitted out, Lapidot said, and the
rest would be reached within six months.
Among detractors of the drive was Amos Yadlin, former
commander of Israel's military intelligence.
"I think that the panic which is being instilled in the
public concerning Syrian chemical weapons is superfluous and it
would be best to turn down the volume," said Yadlin, who runs
Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.
"Against the non-conventional threat it would be better to
best to play up Israel's deterrent factor," he told Army radio,
in an apparent reference to superior Israeli weaponry including
missile shields and what is thought to be the region's only