Awaiting the Scuds: A Letter from Israel

JANUARY 29. Israel is in a state of tense calm during this, the second week of the war. No one is quite sure whether the Patriot missile can always knock out Saddam's Scuds or whether ``the snake,'' as Saddam is called here, is waiting for the right time to attack with a barrage of chemicals. But life here in Israel is returning to normal. Looking out toward the Old City of Jerusalem, I can see cars and buses moving on the roads. Businesses throughout Israel have opened.

All this in stark contrast to the first terrifying hours and days of the war. The first time the siren blared was was early Friday morning, Jan. 18. We rushed to a room whose every opening and fissure had been sealed. A radio bulletin advised each citizen to put on his gas mask.

Time seemed frozen. Children were crying. The elderly with breathing difficulties were trembling. A great fear of the unknown gripped the hearts of men, women, and children in those surreal masks. Yet amid all this horror, people reached out to help one another.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, Jews were expecting a gas attack with chemicals provided to Iraq by Germany, of all nations. This time, though, there is a Jewish state. There is a Jewish defense force. And this time, inside our sealed chambers we were breathing through our gas masks.

The square in front of the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites, was deserted that Friday evening. Even the beggars stayed away. But the night was disturbed again by three sirens. The first two were false alarms, the last one real. Less anxious than earlier, we entered the sealed room and put on our masks. Slowly we were adapting, as human beings have immemorially shown themselves capable of adapting to what at first had seemed intolerable, unimaginable.

Other than the Scud hit in a suburb of Tel Aviv on Jan. 22, it's been rather quiet. The Patriot's success has created a greater sense of optimism, but an optimism etched with profound anxiety. Saddam's Scuds are not only weapons of war; they are weapons of terror.

Israelis carry their gas masks everywhere they go. Any unusual sound provokes alarm. People sleep with their radios blaring to make sure they are alerted to an emergency in case they miss the siren. The Scud threat is as devastating psychologically as it is physically.

AND, indeed, the Scuds are physically devastating. The hit on Jan. 22 killed three and wounded 96. I visited the site. It looked like a bombed-out city during World War II. Buildings were demolished; glass strewn for blocks; plaster and debris scattered over a large area.

And the wounded. Ophrah, in serious condition, her three-year-old daughter Batel semi-conscious on the floor below, repeating over and over: ``I'm afraid, I'm afraid.'' Or Tzviah, the left side of her face grotesquely swollen asking: ``My husband, is he all right? All is lost, I have nothing left.''

Yet, despite all the pressure - physical, psychological, emotional - this amazing little country carries on. On the first day of the war, I went to Ben Gurion airport to greet my daughter who was arriving with her new husband for their honeymoon. As we waited for a taxi, hundreds of Russian immigrants were boarding buses to their homes. Since the beginning of the war, as many as 1,000 Soviet Jews have arrived daily. I saw Ethiopian Jews coming home, too. While American Jews cancel their visits, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews come to stay.

Family and friends in the States have been calling me, alarmed for my safety, urging me to come home. ``What can you do for Israel this time?'' they demand. With all my soul, I consider myself blessed to be here at this hour. I cannot imagine myself elsewhere. This is the time for Jews to run to Israel rather than away. Solidarity with Israel now, in this terrifying present, is our affirmation of our Jewish past and our resounding statement of faith in our Jewish future, our declaration that we are alive, that we have survived, that we are surviving, and that we shall survive - gas masks and all.

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