Israel quiet, but citizens are advised to stay home WAR IN THE GULF

January 17, 1991|By Doug Struck FFTC | Doug Struck FFTC,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Dawn today found Israelis huddled in their closed homes, anxiously watching for missiles from Iraq or for violence from Palestinians here.

They took cautious hope because the initial attack was not answered by a salvo of missiles launched at Israel, as Iraq's Saddam Hussein had often promised.

"Nothing has happened involving Israel," an army spokesman said. "Right now we are not involved."

But authorities warned citizens to stay home and prepare for a possible chemical attack.

"It is too early to say the danger has passed," Defense Minister Moshe Arens said in a radio speech at 7 a.m. local time (midnight EST).

As a result, Jerusalem's usual morning rush hour was replaced instead by an eerie quiet of empty streets. Only those civilians in vital jobs were to report to work. Soldiers walked the avenues, and an occasional military vehicle rushed past.

"We have always had faith in the American ability to crush the dictator," said Yosef Olmert, the government's chief spokesman.

He noted with satisfaction reports that the Western forces had attacked missile sites in western Iraq. Those missile sites are the only ones considered close enough to launch an offensive against Israel.

"If those reports are accurate . . . it may resolve a great deal of problems from our perspective," Mr. Olmert said.

A government spokesman said the Israeli government had been notified before the attack began.

The Israeli army said later that there were no indications of any threat to Israel.

Unless a threat materialized, he said, this country will remain out of the conflict.

"We are going to be keeping a very, very low profile, if possible," Mr. Olmert said.

The army clamped a curfew on the West Bank and Gaza Strip t try to avoid any confrontation with Palestinians there, who have largely favored Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Roads to those areas were closed, according to state radio.

Chemical warfare had supplanted fear of bombs or conventional missiles as the chief concern in Israel. Authorities had opted to urge citizens to stay in their homes rather than go to bomb shelters. Earlier yesterday, authorities explained that decision:

"Right now we are guessing what Iraq would do," an army official said.

"We had to choose. Otherwise, some of the people will be going up to their houses, and some of them will be going down to bomb shelters.

"They would meet in the middle."

The fear of chemical war had seized Israel in an exaggerated grip. Even though this country was not on the front line of conflict, and Iraq's missiles are few and distant, Mr. Hussein's constant threats against it had many here convinced that he would pelt Israel with nerve gas.

"He wants us in the war," said a magazine vendor in Tel Aviv.

Israelis waited tensely through the day yesterday.

Schools were closed until at least Sunday.

Hospitals emptied their beds to be ready to accept casualties. Traffic in Tel Aviv, a city of 1 million, was light.

Many people did not go to work, and some shops were closed.

"People want to be near their families," said one Israeli.

In directing people to go to a sealed room if Iraqi missiles were detected, the army was bowing to the gas fears, even though the population would be much more vulnerable in their homes to conventional missile explosions.

The army also was ignoring its own experts who predicted that what few missiles might reach Israel with chemical warheads would be unlikely to do much harm.

Gas is certainly feared. Before school closed, elementary pupils cut out paper gas masks.

A Civil Defense hot line logged 60 calls an hour, most from people worried about a chemical attack.

The government distributed gas masks to most of Israel's 4.8 million residents, including those in rural areas that are unlikely to be a target of attack. No other country had ever equipped all its citizens against a chemical war, the government said. But now, it said, it is nearly out of masks and money.

In Amman in neighboring Jordan, Sun staff correspondent Dan Fesperman reported that there was little visible activity except just outside the U.S. Embassy, where an intermittent stream of taxis dropped off embassy staff. None of the U.S. officials would comment as they ducked indoors.

Jordanian television stations remained signed off for the night, and radio stations continued to carry regular programming.

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