Night's threat of raid puts anxious Tel Aviv residents at wait's ends WAR IN THE GULF

January 19, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV — TEL AVIV--It is not in character for the Israelis, this business of waiting.

Here, the car behind you beeps even before the light turns green. Wait in line? Forget it. The order is first- shove, first-served.

So it is hard to wait for the missiles to come.

"It's, like, you listen to the radio all night long. And you wait for the boom," said a 34-year-old saleswoman.

Tel Aviv considered the sunset with dour suspicion last night. The previous evening had presented a nasty surprise: Iraqi missiles that landed on the city and on Haifa to the north. That had never happened before.

The city's residents made preparations yesterday expecting more of the same.

Doron and Efrat Belkin readied a bedroom with the necessary accomodations: mattresses for them, their 4-year- old daughter and Doron's parents; an incubator-like plastic crib for the 2-year-old; a refrigerator for food; television; radio; water. And gas masks for all.

"I think it will be worse tonight than the first night," said Mrs. Belkin, a 29-year-old nurse. "Tonight will be the big night."

This was not to suggest Tel Aviv was, as one black- hearted wit put it, "the city of doom." Each pessimist offered a disclaimer, delivered with an exaggerated shrug: "Of course, I could be wrong."

But Tel Aviv is the bulls-eye of Saddam Hussein's proclaimed target. And when air raid sirens split the evening air at 8:40 p.m. last night, Israelis anxiously donned their gas masks and listened for the blasts. It was a false alarm.

Throughout the day, people had stayed close to their homes, as civil defense had recommended. School was out and only vital service jobs were still working, so many had time to ponder the worst.

But what to do while waiting?

"Me? I'll do what I do every Sabbath. I'll go to the synagogue," said a man named Moshe in a shop offering succulent broiled chickens. "But I'll pray for me."

"We have trust in God, number one. And the Israeli Army, number two," added his wife from behind the counter in the shop. Her trust in the Army was well-placed, she assured. "My two sons are both in the Army." Could sons let a mother down?

A young mother with a 3-year-old was trying to figure out how to get her youngster to put on a gas mask if the air-raid sirens went off again.

Thursday night, when the missiles came, the child refused to wear his mask. Resigned, she sat there without hers, too. The missiles, it turned out, carried conventional warheads.

Most Tel Aviv residents expected a long evening at home.

"What else can we do. There is no restaurant open, no cinema. And no private parties. People want to be with their families," said Amina Goren, 34.

For others, the possibility of danger was entertainment enough .

"I think it's great. It's something exciting happening in my life," said Guy, 14 "and a half," he stressed. He was strolling yesterday afternoon carryng his gas mask. ("Mom's paranoid," he confided. "She made me take it.")

The gas masks were distributed to nearly all of Israel's 4.7 million people, the only country ever to so equip all its citizens, the government claims. They are packed in a brown cardboard box about the size of a lunchbox, and they have been on nearly everyone's shoulder this week.

The Israel Civil Defense department did not want the boxes opened unless there were an emergency, so they would not have to pay to have them all repacked and resealed. Their wish was --ed with the wail of an air raid siren.

Guy's mother, Celila, would prepare food and water for five before last night and the family would sleep together in the one room they have lined with plastic against nerve gas, he said.

Don, their Dalmatian, was spooked Thursday night when the family rushed into that room and put on their masks. The people smelled like his masters, the dog must have thought, but they suddenly had hideous faces with black piggy snouts.

Now, said Celia, they have made a "gas mask" for Don: a muzzle outfitted with cloth dipped in soda and baking powder.

Don wasn't the only one spooked. Hospitals in Israel admitted dozens of patients who had excitedly injected themselves with atropine, an antidote for nerve gas distributed with the gas masks. The solution is supposed to be used if people feeel they have been exposed.

Other miscues were fatal. State Radio reported that three elderly women and a 3-year-old girl suffocated in their masks Thursday night when they failed to take the cap off the breathing nozzle.

Many said Israel would endure another attack before wading into the battle. But they commonly felt that one night's worth of missiles would be enough.

"If we get hit again, we should absolutely go to war," said Sumeal Dagan, 34. a driver for a movie company. "That will mean that you can't trust the Americans to do what they say they will do," he said. "We'd have to do it ourselves."

There is a supreme confidence on the part of Israelis that their Air Force could strip the Iraqis of their ability to fire missiles, even if the U.S. had failed.

"You have all this sophisticated weaponry," said Doron Bilkin. "The stories of heroism in Isreal are not one of equipment, they are ones of motivation."

In such a small country, soldiers and civilians sit down to a meal together, Mr. Bilkin noted. The long night ahead waiting for missiles further blurred the distinction between military matters and others.

"In other wars, a soldier was on the front," he said. "Here, you don't go to war. You stay here and wait for with your family."

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