Gas-Mask Dispute Opens First Fissures In Israeli Coalition

Public demand grows for government to distribute masks

AS the threat of war in the Gulf looms larger, Israelis are vigorously debating what steps the government should take to prepare for hostilities. At the center of the argument is Foreign Minister David Levy, whose demand that the government distribute gas masks to protect against a possible chemical weapons attack by Iraq has turned civil defense into a political football.

``We can no longer postpone this action in the face of the unknown,'' said Mr. Levy in a statement Sunday.

But on Wednesday the government did just that by putting off a decision to proceed with distributing millions of gas masks and by appointing a special subcommittee to look into the matter.

A Levy aide said the foreign minister was satisfied with the decision. Levy's remarks, however, have caused dismay and anger among government colleagues and in defense circles, where the prevailing wisdom in past weeks has been for Israel to keep a low profile.

The gas-mask debate is also seen as the first serious crack in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing coalition.

``This crisis has really separated the men from the boys,'' says David Landau, a political analyst. ``Mr. Levy is seething over the patent fact that, in his first major international crisis, he's obviously not a policymaker.''

Maintaining a low profile, is the perfect environment for Mr. Shamir, whose career is a lesson in calculated inaction, Mr. Landau says. ``No one in Israel is better at doing nothing,'' he notes.

Yet, many worry Levy's desire to distribute gas masks would send Baghdad the wrong signal. ``A precipitous preparation could, and probably would, be construed either as a sign of insecurity and trepidation or as a preface to a preemptive attack on Iraq,'' wrote the Jerusalem Post.

Public demands for a change in policy started two weeks ago, when Iraq accused Israel of secretly assisting the United States in its military buildup in the Gulf and threatened reprisals.

``Has the time not come to calmly and quietly open the stores of antichemical-weapons equipment for distribution to the public,'' asked the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Stores selling gas masks and other protective equipment have reported record sales.

Responding to fears among the country's more religious Jews, Mordechai Eliahu, Israel's chief rabbi, announced that ultra-orthodox men may cut their beards in order to wear gas masks.

A question mark, however, hangs over the distribution of protective equipment to Palestinians in the occupied territories. At a recent briefing, Defense Minister Moshe Arens suggested Israel's contingency plans include the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

``My responsibility is one of providing protection to all of the population that lives in areas under Israeli control, [including] the territories of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza,'' he said.

An Army spokesman, however, says no distribution system exists for the occupied territories. ``We can't even get them to cooperate with us in taking the garbage away,'' the spokesman said, adding that a working relationship is required between the Army and the local population to hand out equipment effectively.

Palestinians express doubts about Israel's commitment to protect them. ``People don't trust the Israeli Army and don't expect them to distribute gas masks at all,'' says Taher Shriteh, a Gaza journalist.

A group of prominent Palestinians was planning yesterday to lodge a formal request with the International Red Cross for gas masks. ``I don't think we're going to ask the Israelis,'' said Radwan Abu Ayyash, head of the West Bank Journalists' Union.

For the most part, however, Palestinians, many of whom support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, are not showing the same degree of concern about the prospect of a chemical attack as Israelis.

``Most people feel Israel is exaggerating the danger of chemical warfare,'' says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of an East Jerusalem think tank, adding that Palestinians are more concerned about the actions of the Israeli government, now that international attention is distracted from the Arab-Israeli dispute.

``Most people in the Gaza Strip are refugees,'' says Mr. Shriteh. ``They're more worried about dying of hunger or being shot than dying in a gas war.''

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