Israelis ready gas masks, but Iraq threat feels distant

The Israeli government tested its Arrow interceptor missiles Sunday to prepare for an Iraqi Scud attack.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For most Israelis, the prospect of an Iraqi missile attack seems the less likely of two evils. Two recent opinion surveys say Israelis who fear a Palestinian bomb easily outnumber those worried about the arrival of an Iraqi Scud.

Still, it often pays to be cautious. So in a country already suffused with metal detectors, impromptu roadblocks, and patrolling soldiers, now comes a new imposition in the name of security: the problem of obtaining an up-to-date gas mask.

Sunday, the Israeli government ran its first multiple-launch test of four Arrow interceptor missiles, to gauge the country's defenses against possible Scud missile attacks from Iraq. In recent weeks, it has been distributing "personal protection kits," conducting civil-defense drills that simulate missile attacks, inoculating emergency workers against smallpox, and urging citizens to stockpile drinking water - in bottles or sealed tanks, not plastic - in the event that regular supplies are disrupted or contaminated.

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Meanwhile, Israeli newspapers have published reports saying that the country's smallpox vaccine has been prepared under substandard conditions, that army-issued gas masks don't fit in some cases, and that the government is exaggerating the possibility of war for political reasons. Officials have denied all three charges.

Yoel Parnasa, a square-faced computer engineer who lives in Jerusalem, shrugs his shoulders at the war hype. "We will not need it," he says, referring to his new gas mask. "The chance that something will happen is very, very small."

Nonetheless Mr. Parnasa adjusted his morning routine one day last week to visit an Army Home Front Command distribution center in a dim parking garage under Jerusalem's biggest mall. He got masks for himself and his wife, a ventilated protective hood for his three-year-old daughter, and a ventilated plastic tent for his baby son. Despite his skepticism about the need for such equipment, he says, it's better to be on the "safe side."

Here, at one of 36 such centers in a country of 6.6 million people, soldiers distribute thousands of protection kits every day. For the time being the government is addressing the needs of its citizens first; foreigners who live in Israel must wait until the government declares an "emergency situation" until they can obtain a gas mask, and, unlike citizens, they will have to pay a refundable fee for their protection kits. Palestinians who hold Israeli identity cards and those who live in parts of the territories under Israeli civil administration are entitled to free masks now.

For many Israelis, the Gulf War of 1991 is more than a memory - it's a box sitting in the closet, containing the gas mask the government issued at the time. Ilona Glickman, a retired art teacher, brought her husband's mask to the distribution center; during the past decade his face has narrowed, and he needs a smaller size. On Jan. 1, the day the media reported the government's advice to do so, she bought 24 liters of water for her "sealed room" - a reinforced, bunker-like space that Israeli builders have been required to include in dwellings since the Gulf War.

The water is enough for her and her husband for three days, according to the government's recommendation. Ms. Glickman has also laid in some supplies of sardines, beans, and matzo.

But she, too, hardly seems convinced that these measures are necessary or effective. She wore her gas mask during the Gulf War; "I don't know if it helped or not." Her plan, she adds, "is to put this [mask] on and to pray a little."

Amid a frenzy of media reports scrutinizing the adequacy of Israel's war preparations, some voices are calling for calm. Analysts cite Israel's improved missile defense, the apparent degradation of Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities since the Gulf War, and the Iraqi leader's unwillingness to use chemical weapons in that war, as reasons not to worry too much.

"Some of us believe that the chance of an attack is nonexistent while others feel the need to hunker down behind layers of defenses and air filters," wrote Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, a former commander of Israel's Air Force, in a recent front-page commentary in the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "In these matters there is no correct and incorrect, right and wrong. But everyone must remember: we must not lose our cool."

Cool or panicked, Israel's preparations are thorough. Home Front Command officials have begun visiting schools to instruct students in the wearing of gas masks. A veterinarian is leading an effort to create "the first personal defense kit" for pets, according to a report in the Ma'ariv daily. The newspaper also reports that a children's channel has prepared a series of programs to ease children's fears of war, help them deal with the gas masks, and alleviate the boredom of waiting out an emergency in a sealed room.

But some Israelis don't plan to wait around for that possibility. Travel agents are fielding increased inquiries about reservations for flights out of the country in late January and February, when Israelis expect the conflict to occur. Hotels and inns in parts of Israel considered out of range or unlikely to be targeted are also reporting greater than usual interest in bookings for the coming weeks.

But 90 percent of Israelis, according to one poll, say they will stay home in the event of an Iraqi attack. Five percent say they will move to another part of the country and 3 percent say they will go abroad. And where 24 percent say they fear Iraq's missiles, 55 percent say they worry about "a Palestinian terror attack."

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