Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to carry on with their daily routines Wednesday in light of a possible US strike on Syria, even as the security cabinet approved a limited call-up of reservists in vital military capacities.
The dual message of “stay calm but be prepared,” one government official said, reflected the continued assessments in Jerusalem that there was a “low probability” that Syria would actually strike Israel, but also reflected the government’s responsibility to prepare for all sorts of scenarios, “no matter how unlikely.”
The IDF deployed air defenses around the country on Wednesday and called up a few hundred reserve soldiers ahead of the expected American strike, but these measures are basic precautionary ones, and the chances of a Syrian retributive attack on Israel remain low, a senior military source stressed.
“We have a clear responsibility to prepare the army for all possibilities.
We took a number of decisions to prepare ourselves for a scenario we hope will not materialize,” he added.
As part of the preparations, the IAF deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries in Haifa, Ashkelon and Eilat, and is set to place additional batteries in the northern regions of Amakim and Safed.
“We’ll take additional decisions down the line about placing Iron Dome batteries in northern areas, and possibly further south,” the military source said.
Patriot and Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile batteries, which are deployed at all times, have also been moved around the country.
As of Wednesday evening, a few hundred reservists had been ordered to report for IAF duty – including Iron Dome operators – as well as for Military Intelligence and Home Front Command roles.
“We can expand the call-up if necessary. But this is not a widespread call-up,” the army source emphasized.
The IDF’s overall state of readiness is at normal, he said.
“We’ll only change this when the US begins operating in Syria. There are no special orders from the IDF’s Operations Branch, other than orders for front-line units to be prepared for the possibility of a cancellation of weekend leave,” the source stated.
He added that “naturally forces that are on the northern front lines, particularly on the Golan Heights, will be on high alert over the weekend.”
The Home Front Command, too, has urged members of the public to continue their lives as usual. It reported receiving 20,000 calls to its hot lines in the past day, causing the lines to crash.
“We’ve had far higher call numbers in the past. We will upgrade the phone lines,” the source said.
Similarly distribution centers for gas masks have been experiencing a surge of visits from concerned citizens, and extra staff will be sent to handle the increase in activities.
The army source speculated that the timing of the US strike would depend on a few variables, such as the exit of UN chemical weapons inspectors from Syria. According to his assessment, the strike will occur sometime around this weekend.
“The public should know that the chances of Syrian retribution against Israel are low,” he repeated, calling for calm.
Asked about IDF assessments regarding the chances of rocket fire from smaller terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which reportedly threatened to respond to a Syria strike by firing on Israel, he said there was “no indication they decided to [carry out their threats]. But the possibility of attacks by terror groups in Gaza and Sinai is also being factored in.”
The “low probability” estimation is due in part to Israeli assessments that Syrian President Bashar Assad is cognizant of messages Jerusalem has delivered, which make clear that an attack on Israel would ignite a counter-attack that would bring his regime down.
Following the security cabinet meeting in which ministers approved the limited callup of reservists, Netanyahu issued his statement that Israelis need not alter their daily routine.
The ministers made the decision after hearing briefings from IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz and senior Defense Ministry officials.
“The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and prepared to respond severely against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said in his post-meeting statement.
Security officials said Jerusalem and Washington were in close contact, and that the US would likely give Israel a few hours’ notice before launching any type of attack.
After the meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at an economics conference that the deliberations in the cabinet had taken place in a “reasoned and responsible” manner.
The “bottom line,” he said, was that Israel was preparing and taking the appropriate measures, but doing so in a responsible way that would neither sow panic nor lead to unwanted escalation.
“We need to prepare,” he said, “but we also need to maintain the daily routine.”
Ya’alon repeated a message he and Netanyahu have expressed numerous times since the start of the week: that Israel was not “trigger happy,” but that anyone in the region who might think this was the time to “challenge” Israel would be met with its full force.
He said what was taking place in Syria was part of a once-in-a-century historical development.
“We are not involved or interfering,” he made clear.
“The Syrians crossed the red line the US set out, of not using chemical weapons against civilians. The pictures are horrible. Humanity cannot tolerate this reality, but we are not the ones dealing with this. Rather, it is being done by the West, led by the US.”
Over the last two days, and in an effort to keep tight control of the messages coming out of Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Ya’alon were the only ministers speaking publicly about the situation in Syria.
In addition, both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry are doing their utmost to broadcast a “business as usual” atmosphere, denying that they are on any kind of emergency footing.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry canceled a conference scheduled to take place in Jerusalem early next week for ambassadors in some 20 key capitals around the world. One ministry official explained that the move to postpone the conference stemmed from a decision that at this time the ambassadors were needed in their embassies.