Israelis stockpile goods as rumors spread of imminent Iranian retaliation after Damascus attack

The army has canceled leave for all combat troops, called up Air Force reservists and beefed up missile defenses amid fears Tehran will launch an attack on Friday

Israel Defense Forces soldiers guard Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market on March 29.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers guard Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market on March 29.Alexi J. Rosenfeld (Getty Images)
Antonio Pita

“Hi, have you got any generators?” “You’re the twentieth person to come in today asking. I don’t have any left and you can save your money because there won’t be a war,” replies Sagi, a sales clerk at an appliance store inside the large shopping mall in Malja, Jerusalem. Sagi points to a shelf stocked with capsule coffee-makers and adds: “That was all full of transistor radios. We haven’t had any left since the war started [in October], but this week more people have been coming in asking for them. They ask mostly for lighting systems [that don’t require electricity].”

The exchange highlights the concern among Israel’s population on Thursday, with purchases of canned food, water, and electricity generators, as the feeling grows that Iran will launch an attack Friday in retaliation for the assassination of one of the senior Iranian military commanders in Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, as well as two other high-ranking military officers and several other members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps on Monday in a strike on the ambassador’s residence in Damascus presumed to have been carried out by Israel.

The Israeli military is on high alert: it has cancelled leave for all combat troops, called up Air Force reservists and reinforced anti-missile defenses. The Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on Thursday staged a mock mass casualty scenario and military correspondents on television, while calling for calm, reminded viewers that they have 11 minutes to reach a bomb shelter in case of a missile launch from Iran, or several hours if it is a drone attack. There are no scenes of panic and no lack of people on the street, but families with particularly large shopping bags are a common sight.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to Tehran at a political and security Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem: “For years Iran has been working against us both directly and through its proxies, and therefore Israel has been working against Iran and its emissaries, both defensively and offensively,” he said. “We will know how to protect ourselves and we will act according to the simple principle that whoever hurts us or plans to harm us, we will harm them.”

With rumors of an imminent attack circulating on social networks and Telegram and WhatsApp groups in Hebrew, military spokesman Daniel Hagari said the military instructions for the civilian population “have not changed,” as is usually the case in the face of a war scenario. “There is no need to buy generators, gather food and withdraw money from ATMs,” he said.

In Malja, a teenage girl listens to the message and explains to someone on the phone that she is going home without a generator because Hagari has just said there is no need. Aviad is less confident. He is 40 years old and leaves the supermarket with his two children. His cart is not overflowing, but he has plenty of large bottles of Coca-Cola and water, packaged bread that is heated in the microwave, and a dozen eggs. An elderly woman who prefers not to give her name pays for a flashlight and an external cell phone battery at a hardware store called Home Center. “I have one at home, but I don’t know if it works or, at my age, what batteries it needs,” she says. “I came in today because of how the situation is, yes.”

“Situation” is the word by which many Israelis abstractly refer to the Middle East conflict. The sales clerk, Silvia, explains that they are now displaying three new products next to the checkout counter: a small emergency lamp that operates without electricity, external cell phone batteries and matches, usually aimed at religious Jews because they are used to light Shabbat candles.

The weight of several unsettling elements has changed the mood in just 24 hours, even though no political or military leader has formally made a statement on an imminent attack by Tehran. The head of the military intelligence services, Major-General Aharon Haliva, has issued a warning to his officers: “I have told you more than once that it is not certain that the worst is behind us, and we have complex days ahead of us.”

GPS signal disruptions

Navigation apps — Israel’s Waze or Google Maps — have started to fail in places like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, displaying the location as Beirut or Cairo. This is due to alterations to the GPS signal made by the Israeli military to hinder attacks. It has happened in the past when approaching the border with Lebanon or Gaza, but not in the center of the country. The army has recommended Israelis manually set their location in the Home Front Command app to correctly receive alerts of incoming projectiles and drones.

Following the attack in Damascus, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed that Israel will pay a “heavy price.” Similar threats have not always been fulfilled in the past, as after the 2020 U.S. assassination in Iraq of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Al Quds force and considered the most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The response, moreover, could come at Israeli embassies abroad or through Iran’s allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or militia groups in Iraq. Tehran calls it “strategic patience”: waiting to see when and how to respond to an attack like the one Israel carried out on Monday.

In Israel, however, rumors have spread that the retaliation will take the form of an unprecedented missile barrage from Iran itself this Friday, as it is Quds (Jerusalem) Day, the day of solidarity with the Palestinians that Iran celebrates every year on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israeli intelligence services, told Reuters that he would not be “surprised” if it was the day chosen, although he called on the population not to “panic” or “run to the shelters.”

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