Israel beefs up defenses ahead of expected US strike on Syria


JERUSALEM — As panicked Israelis broke into fistfights at one gas mask distribution center, Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday deployed extra missile-interception systems to the north and approved a limited mobilization of reservists.

The country is bracing for the blowback of a possible U.S. airstrike against Syria over the Syrian military’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Damascus has threatened to retaliate against Israel if the Americans attack.

But Israeli officials said they continue to believe that the chances of a strike by Syrian President Bashar Assad or his allies remain low. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged citizens to remain calm, saying the military is prepared to respond to any threat.

“There is no reason to change our routine,” he said after meeting with his security cabinet in Tel Aviv.

Though the government’s home-front command has not issued any formal orders for citizens to prepare, some communities in the north opened public bomb shelters and drilled schoolchildren in emergency routines.

The city of Tel Aviv told local artists who are allowed to use bomb shelters as studios to be prepared to clear out. Haifa officials want to drain huge ammonia tanks at its port to prevent disaster in case of a rocket strike.

The military moved an additional Iron Dome missile defense battery to the north and put its Arrow interception system on higher alert.

As they have in recent days, Israeli citizens rushed to gas mask distribution centers to pick up free government-issued protective gear. But shortages led to long waits. Fights broke out in some locations. Other centers ran out of masks.

The government pledged to increase the number of distribution centers from seven to 18 in the coming days.