Israel remains quiet as bombs fall on Iraq Citizens still warned to prepare for attack WAR IN THE GULF

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

JERUSALEM -- Israeli authorities warned citizens to stay at home and prepare for a possible chemical attack last night, while the army waited to see whether Iraq's threats to wage war on Israel were thwarted by the U.S. attack.

"Nothing has happened involving Israel," an Israeli army official said shortly after the attack. "Right now, we are not involved."

The army ordered civilians to follow civil defense plans. Residents were to "remain at home, open their protective [gas mask] kits and place them close at hand," the army said in a statement over state radio.

There were no sirens or other signals in Israel as allied forces fTC began bombing Iraq. A government spokesman said the Israeli government had been notified before the attack began.

Hours before the war broke out, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went on Israeli radio to say war was imminent and told Israelis to expect an Iraqi attack. But he said the Jewish state was prepared and vowed it would defend itself with "strong countermeasures."

"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.

The Israeli army said shortly after the attack began that there were no indications of any threat to Israel. Unless there were, this country would remain out of the conflict, he said.

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

The army clamped a curfew on the West Bank and Gaza Strip to try to avoid any confrontation with Palestinians there, who have largely favored Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Roads to those areas were ordered 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 are detected, the army was bowing to the gas fears, even though the population will be much more vulnerable in their homes to conventional missile explosions.

The suggestion created a run on tape and plastic in hardware stores.

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.

The weather report in the Jerusalem Post yesterday said the scattered showers that were forecast "could help disperse gas." 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 its 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: Equipping the 1.5 million Arabs in the occupied lands -- an action ordered Monday by the Supreme Court -- will be a "slow process," a spokesman said.

Authorities may be worried that they will see the gas masks used to defeat tear gas frequently used to disperse demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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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