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Last Updated

04 Nov 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2002.

Israelis Prepare for Life in the Bull's-Eye Again

Mideast: Many fear attack by Iraq if war erupts. But unlike in '91, nation might hit back.


JERUSALEM -- In the corner of a parking garage in Israel's largest shopping mall, a peculiar ritual is taking place. All day, streams of people arrive carrying what appear to be shoe boxes with black plastic shoulder straps. Soldiers sitting behind folding tables open each box, remove and inspect the gas mask inside and replace any outdated parts.

In most countries, this would be considered an odd, even paranoid practice. In Israel, it is accepted as a part of life --especially lately, as talk of a U.S. military attack on Iraq has swelled the lines at the gas mask stations and reminded Israelis that, as during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they are likely to be the bull's-eye for any Iraqi retaliation.

One important difference: There are indications that this time Israel might strike back.

Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the Gulf War, most of which either were shot down or exploded in unpopulated areas. Israelis feared attacks with chemical or biological weapons, but the Scuds were equipped with conventional warheads.

Still, two people were killed and more than 200 injured in the attacks, and nearly everyone living in Israel at the time has indelible memories of air raid sirens, gas masks and rooms sealed with tape and plastic sheeting.

Most Israelis seem certain they are about to experience deja vu.

Sales of bottled water, canned tuna, televisions and VCRs have soared. The factory that produces gas masks for the government is working triple shifts to keep up with demand.

Shavrav, a company that makes a $1,000 home-filtration system that it claims will protect people from chemical and biological agents as well as radiation, can't keep up with demand.

"The main question is: When can you install it?" said company President Mordechai Larry. "They don't even ask the price. They want it yesterday."

For all the concern, Israeli officials and defense analysts insist that the country is in far less danger from an Iraqi attack than it was nearly 12 years ago. Iraq is a weaker opponent than it was during the Gulf War, they say.

"I don't think they've been able to save more than a few launchers and at the most a few tens of Al-Hussein missiles that can reach us," said Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. The Al-Hussein is an Iraqi variation of the Soviet Scud B missile.

Even if Iraq has chemical or biological weapons, as the United States and Britain claim, it is another matter to effectively deliver them in a missile warhead, Feldman and others say.

In addition, Israel says it is far better equipped to defend itself than it was during the Gulf War, when the United States hurriedly delivered mobile Patriot missile launchers to shoot down Scuds. Critics have said that the Patriots were ineffective and that casualties were relatively low only because the Scuds were such crude missiles.

A Touted Defense Shield

Since then, the Patriots have been improved, Israeli officials say. But, more important, Israel and the U.S. have jointly developed the Arrow antiballistic missile system, which officials here are touting as a nearly foolproof shield.

"We will destroy all the missiles that are fired on us within five minutes, without the citizens of Israel even feeling it," Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri boasted to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Not everyone is quite so confident about the Arrow.

"We have no evidence that it will work against a real ballistic missile," said Reuven Pedatzur, director of the Galili Center for Strategy and National Security at Tel Aviv University and one of Israel's leading experts on antimissile defense.

True, Pedatzur said, the Arrow has performed brilliantly in tests. But, he said, "all the tests are very sterile tests.... During the war, it will be different."

So is he worried? Not particularly. Pedatzur is among those who believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will think twice about attacking Israel this time, particularly with unconventional weapons --"because he knows exactly what Israel has," Pedatzur said, "and he is going to be deterred."

At the urging of the United States, Israel refrained from retaliating during the Gulf War. The thinking was that an Israeli entry into the war would alienate the United States' Arab allies and fracture the broad coalition arrayed against Iraq.

This week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office denied a New York Times report that the Israeli leader had told the Bush administration that his nation would strike back this time if hit by Iraqi missiles.

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former ambassador to Israel, told the Los Angeles Times this month that he believes Sharon's government would hold back if Iraq fired conventional missiles and would strike back with conventional weapons if hit by a chemical attack. If Israelis were hit with biological weapons, he added, "I have no doubt that they will give it everything they've got."

Some officials here say Israel would show restraint to avoid interfering with the U.S. military's strategic aims in a war with Iraq. But others say Israel would strike, particularly if hit with unconventional weapons. After all, they say, there is not yet an extensive American-led coalition and most Arab countries oppose the idea of a U.S. invasion.

That gives Israel a freer hand, said Moshe Arens, who was Israeli defense minister during the 1991 conflict. "This time," he told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, "Israel will have no problem reacting."

Israeli defense officials also said the country is much better prepared to deal with the consequences of an attack, although this contention has been sharply questioned in the news media and among government critics.

Since the Gulf War, every new house and apartment unit has been required to include a bomb shelter --essentially, a room with reinforced walls and airtight seals on the doors and windows. However, as many as 2 million Israelis, or about one-third the population, are estimated to live in homes without shelters. Although there are public shelters, defense officials have conceded that they fall short of needs.

"It's true that there's a gap to close, but we've made amazing progress," Defense Ministry Director-General Amos Yaron told Israeli radio.

In the meantime, Israelis will be told to do what they did in 1991: Seal a room using tape, plastic or, if necessary, rags.

Shots Against Diseases

In preparation for a biological attack, authorities have reported, health officials have vaccinated 5,000 doctors and nurses against smallpox, and they plan to give shots to more than 15,000 people to resist bubonic plague. There are talks about vaccinating the entire population against plague.

Then there are the gas masks. Israeli newspapers have been filled with reports about controversies over the equipment.

Since the 1991 conflict, Israel has poured millions of dollars into research into and production of a higher-tech gas mask that was expected to be a vast improvement over the Gulf War-era model. So far, the new mask has been a failure. Now the government is sticking with the tried and true, which makes the wearer look a bit like an anteater but has the advantage of apparently working.

A potential shortage is looming, however, with 600,000 masks set to reach their expiration date in January, when they will need to be replaced in whole or part. The government has insisted that it will meet the demand in time.

For now, there is no shortage, and thousands of people a day emerge from government centers with new or updated masks.

Evgeny Karan got his mask updated with a new filter recently at the resupply center in the garage of Jerusalem's Malkha Kanyon Mall. Karan, an associate professor of biomechanics, moved to Israel from Russia in the fall of 1990 and was told to get a gas mask right away.

"I thought it was nonsense," he said.

By the end of the following February, he had already used the mask during Iraqi Scud missile attacks and was ready to rethink his position.

"Now I know it's not nonsense," he said. "I live in Israel, and even if there's no imminent danger, you always have to be prepared."