JERUSALEM, AUG. 20 -- Although Israel's government has stressed its determination to stay out of the Persian Gulf crisis, and Israelis have remained relatively calm, this nation's nerves are showing these days in a full-blown domestic debate about a topic no one gave much thought to until recently: gas masks.
For the last 10 days, military and government officials, the Israeli press and a growing number of jittery citizens have been arguing about whether the army should give citizens gas masks and other protective gear that have been stockpiled for defense against a chemical-weapons attack.
The army has maintained that the step is unnecessary. Not only has Israel been a bystander in the mounting confrontation between Iraq, the United States and other Western and Arab states, officials say, but the odds weigh heavily against any attempt by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to attack Israel with chemical weapons. Last week, the army said it would not hand out any equipment and urged Israelis not to try to buy such gear on their own.
Israelis normally are quick to accept such judgments by their military and security experts, who have led the country through countless crises. In this case, however, the army's withholding of the gas masks has prompted a storm of polemic and protest from dissenters ranging from Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem to worldly Tel Aviv lawyers to Foreign Minister David Levy.
At a time when the government and many citizens are struggling to maintain a calm and cool profile, the gas mask debate has become the channel through which the country's mounting tension has been released.
"The point is not really whether or not we get the masks," said one Jerusalem woman who has weathered a few Israeli crises. "People are looking at this as a symbol of how much danger of war there really is -- and of whether or not the government is in control of the situation."
For the moment, the gas-mask question has become a sparring ground for rival cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing governing coalition. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who has done most of Israel's talking during the crisis, has backed the army's view that the masks should not be distributed because the chances of an attack are small. An operation to hand them out, he says, might only panic the public and provoke Saddam.
For the last two days, however, Arens has been under siege by his populist nemesis within the Likud Party, Levy, who has insisted that the masks be taken out of storage. Levy, one of the few Israeli politicians with no military experience, argues that distribution would calm the nerves of Israelis and deter any Iraqi attack.
Other, more extremist cabinet ministers have raised a different issue, demanding that if masks are distributed, they not be given to the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shamir, who has kept his public appearances and comments to a minimum during the last two weeks, finally decided today that the goverment should settle the gas-mask issue once and for all on Wednesday, Israel radio reported tonight.
More than a few Israelis have not been willing to wait for the government to make up its mind. Hundreds have flocked to specialty shops in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to buy masks and protective ponchos, even though the retail equipment is called inadequate by the Defense Ministry.
Meanwhile, Orthodox rabbis have become involved in a Talmudic debate over whether, and how, men with long beards should wear gas masks. Some rabbis say the men should be able to cut off their beards, while others say the Orthodox Jews should try to import special masks that accommodate them.
Over the weekend, the Brooklyn-based leader of the Lubavitcher Hassidic movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, may have settled the issue. The gulf events, he said, "do not have to disturb the spiritual and physical peace of a single Jew, because they are a preparation and preface for the actual coming of the Messiah."