Israelis feel more secure as Iraqi attacks fall off

February 01, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israelis are cautiously hopeful that the ability of Iraq to hurt them with missile bombardments is dwindling.

The most recent attacks -- last night and Monday -- consisted of lone missiles that were apparently misguided and fell harmlessly in empty areas short of Tel Aviv. Yesterday's landed in the West Bank.

Last night's attack was the first in three days, a contrast to the pattern of last week when nearly nightly salvos of missiles scored deadly hits in Tel Aviv.

No one ventures to say that the last air alert siren has been heard. Israeli military authorities continue to warn that Iraq may fire more conventional or even chemical warheads. But they speak more frequently now of "sporadic" attacks.

"It does appear there is a diminishing capability," said an army official. "But they are still able to fire one or two missiles now and then."

And there are signs of growing confidence among civilians. Gradually, some shops shuttered in Tel Aviv have reopened, workers have lingered before joining the nightly exodus from the city, and a few restaurants have dared to stay open in the evening.

"After the siren, everybody comes back," said a waitress with a shrug.

This wary optimism is bolstered by indications of increased success by the allies in destroying the mobile rocket launchers in western Iraq. Those launchers have fired eight volleys into Israel since Jan. 17.

An attempted Scud attack Tuesday night was foiled when planes from the multinational force blew up launchers already loaded with the missiles, according to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf.

"We're getting better and better at our ability to find them," he said.

In the last two weeks, the United States has rushed batteries of Patriot anti-missile systems to Israel to help shoot down the Iraqi rockets. Six such batteries now ring Tel Aviv, and more apparently are coming.

The U.S.-designed systems have hit most of the incoming missiles. The addition of more batteries is designed to improve the odds of intercepting all the offensive rockets.

Improvements also are being made in the Patriot system. Aviation Week, a respected trade publication, reported that the warning to Patriot batteries of a Scud attack has been increased from 90 seconds to about five minutes. The added warning time, apparently achieved by sending notice of an attack directly from U.S. satellites to the batteries, may increase the effectiveness of the defensive systems.

Because last night's attack was off target, no Patriots were fired.

Also providing relief here is the exodus to Iran of most of Iraq's Su-24 bombers, apparently removing the threat that Iraq might try an aerial attack on Israel with conventional or chemical bombs.

Ironically, these improvements come as some Israeli leaders seem to be chafing at the government's military restraint.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told visitors this week that Israel wanted to react but was being held back by the Americans. His defense minister, Moshe Arens, has said they have drawn up a plan of attack.

Public opinion has made a complete turnabout in recognition of the international good will earned by restraint and still favors patience. The Israeli military may be forced to honor that mood because of the reported refusal by the Americans to give Israel the computer codes to identify their planes as friendly and thus keep them from being shot down.

The improved feeling of security here also comes as Israel collects more military hardware. Germany reportedly has agreed to give Israel two submarines, anti-aircraft systems, missiles, armored cars equipped to detect biological attack and other gear worth $670 million.

Syria, which is part of the multinational force but long a foe of Israel, has protested against the added arms for Israel.

The Scud attacks from Iraq began at 2 a.m. the day after the war started and have been aimed mostly at Tel Aviv and Haifa on the coast.

Although only two people have died of direct injuries from the blasts, two elderly people died of heart attacks during nearby explosions, and at least 10 people have suffocated from improper use of gas masks. The Israeli news media now are giving the missile death toll as 14.

In addition, at least 273 people have been wounded, 518 others have been treated for anxiety reactions and about 3,000 have been evacuated from their homes, according to the military's chief medical officer, Brig. Gen. Yehuda Danon.

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