TEL AVIV -- Israelis are facing the realization that there may be nightly bombardments of their cities even if their own military responds, following the second missile attack on Tel Aviv in as many days.
Tel Aviv was struck by at least three Scud missiles early yesterday morning. A fourth was initially reported to have landed in an empty area, and several others launched by Iraq may have gone astray. Early Friday morning, seven Iraqi missiles fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa. There have been no deaths.
Action by the Israeli Air Force now seems a question only of when and where. The attack seemed to bump the issue across a political threshhold in Israel that requires the country to respond.
"Israel cannot let it go without any reaction," said the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai. After the first attack Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens vowed "we will respond."
But having crossed that line, Israelis now realize their much-trusted Air Force may be unable to stop the missiles any more surely than the American-led forces.
[In Washington, U.S. officials said they had decided to send more Patriot missiles to Israel, Reuters reported. A Patriot succeeded Friday in shooting down an Iraqi missile aimed at Saudi Arabia that was similar tothose fired at Israel. Israel has Patriots, but they are not yet operational.]
"We believe Iraq will keep launching more missiles into Israel in the next few days," said General Shai. "We have to prepare ourselves and the civilian population for more attacks from Iraq."
"We have a case of luck so far," Benjaman Netanyahu, the deputy foreign minister, said yesterday. "These missiles have not yet killed anyone. But who can say they will not cause a tragic loss of life?
"We have to do whatever we must do to help secure the airspace over Israel," he said. "I'm not going to say how, when or against what.
"We prefer to keep Saddam [Hussein] guessing," Mr. Netanyahu added in an interview with Cable News Network.
But the decision is a difficult one. Mr. Netanyahu stressed that Israel was not considering a blunt and bloody retaliation, such as a strike against civilian targets in Iraq.
"We take note of what Iraq is doing" by sending missiles into residential areas in Tel Aviv, he said. "We don't forget what Iraq is doing. But retaliation is not our principal concern today."
That leaves strategic targets as an option for Israel. But those already are the highest-priority targets of the multinational force. Such targets as chemical weapons plants already have been hit and reported to have been disabled, and there is no reason to believe Israel could be more effective.
The Israeli Air Force is acknowledged to be one of the best in the world. But it could be striking at a disadvantage. Israel does not have the satellites that are being used by the U.S. Air Force to spot targets and guide the attacks.
The extent to which Israel is receiving satellite information is the subject of close secrecy here. Officials have hinted that since the Persian Gulf war began they have gotten satellite information they had in the past been denied. "Cooperation is excellent," said a senior military official.
But it is unknown how much delay there is in transferring that information. And U.S. forces already are searching for mobile missile launchers and attacking them whenever they are spotted. Israeli planes could probably do no better, say analysts here.
"It's very difficult to trace those mobile launchers," General Shai said of the moveable vehicles that are believed to have sent the missiles to Tel Aviv.
"The failure to [stop those missiles] should not be considered a failure of the allied forces," he said.
But on the street in Tel Aviv, the successive rain of Iraqi missiles is considered proof that the United States is unable to accomplish what many citizens are certain their own Air Force could.
"Israel should attack," said 26-year-old Shimon Sason, whose house was rocked by a missile blast yesterday that blew open his door and shattered his windows. "We stayed our hand for one night after the first attack, and the U.S.A. couldn't do it. Israel will have do do it ourselves."
"We've given the U.S. a chance," said another man in the neighborhood. "Now it's our turn."
It is that feeling, and the belief that no Arab attack can be left unanswered without inviting more, that may induce Israel to act even without any clear military advantage.
Israelis say that throughout five wars in their country's 42-year history, civilian areas had never before been attacked. But leaders here began to urge them to get used to the idea.
"We have been subjected to all kinds of wars," said General Shai. "We have faced a terrorist war, an all-out war, and wars of attrition. This is a new kind of war."
The air raids of the last two nights have kept the population tired and on edge. There have been several false alarms, and each time the sirens lift their wail over the cities, families hustle into plastic-sealed rooms and don gas masks.