JERUSALEM (AFP) - Fearing a possible US strike against neighbouring Syria which could spill across their northern border, Israelis are scurrying to replace old or missing gas masks, an official said on Tuesday.
"Since the beginning of the week, there has been a significant rise in the number of calls to our enquiry centre, a four-fold increase," a spokesman for the Israel Postal Service, which distributes the gas masks, told AFP.
The working week in Israel begins on Sunday.
She said that actual orders for masks to be delivered by courier were up 300 per cent compared to "normal" days, and added that there was also an uptick in numbers of people visiting distribution centres, but she gave no figures for the visits.
Gas masks were first distributed to the general public during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait when Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel as the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm.
Israeli experts, however, said that the danger of a similar attack by the Syrian regime or its Lebanese proxies Hezbollah was low.
"The possibility that the president of Syria would turn to an attack against Israel looks low, but the defence establishment is prepared for the eventuality," public radio's veteran military affairs correspondent Carmela Menashe said.
Washington warned Syria on Monday that it would face action over the "moral obscenity" of a chemical weapons attack last week, which independent medical agency Doctors Without Borders has said left at least 355 people dead from "neurotoxic symptoms."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied that his forces were responsible but there are growing reports that Washington and its allies are preparing to launch a punitive cruise missile strike.
Israel's deputy defence minister Danny Danon said that if Syria or anyone else were to attack the Jewish state, the consequences would be clear.
"If and when Israel is attacked we shall react, that's not new," he told public radio.
"If we respond, we shall respond seriously, as all our enemies in the region know," he said.
Israel says that Syrian ally Hezbollah has some 60,000 rockets and missiles aimed at it from neighbouring Lebanon.
In July 2006, Israel and the Shiite organisation fought a bloody 33-day war, during which the Jewish state's arch-foe fired thousands of missiles over the border.
The fighting devastated parts of Lebanon and killed 1,200 people there, mainly civilians.
Sixty Israelis - 41 civilians and 19 soldiers - died.
Ms Menashe said that the Israeli security establishment's assessment is that Hezbollah faces domestic opposition to embroiling Lebanon in another fight.
"Israel is prepared for the possibility of other players, such as Hezbollah, acting from Lebanon," she said. "That possibility is also low, according the assessment, mainly because of opposition within Lebanon to Hezbollah's activity and its involvement in Syria."
Hezbollah has been fighting for months alongside Assad loyalists, triggering revenge bomb attacks in its Beirut bastion.
Ms Menashe and other experts said that Israel would warn it in advance if it acts.
A senior Israeli defence delegation visited the White House on Monday for high-level talks on the building Syria crisis and the nuclear showdown with Iran.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice met her outgoing Israeli counterpart Yaakov Amidror for talks centred on "Iran, Egypt, Syria, and a range of other regional security issues," a US official said.