Israelis reach for gas masks amid talk of war

Jews fear U.S.-led effort to fight terrorism could turn Israel into a target

September 26, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The small, airless room in the basement of the mall grew thick with people, each one carrying nearly identical rectangular brown boxes. The larger the family, the more boxes each person carried.

The scene resembled the return counter at an American department store on the day after Christmas. Only the people here weren't exchanging ill-fitting cardigans or unsightly ties. They were exchanging gas masks.

It is a civic duty that is routine throughout Israel, part of the security consciousness built into the everyday psyche: Go to the mall. Buy a new pair of pants. Update your gas mask.

"Protective kits are part of your life," the sign in the small room says.

Israelis worry that America's war against terrorism will turn Israel into a prime target.

"My wife made me come," said Shlomi Hoffman, 50, the principal of a dance school in Jerusalem. He sat in a chair, four boxes piled by his feet. "She said something might happen. I can't believe I am sitting here myself. It's terrible that we have to live like this."

Ten years ago, during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the Persian Gulf war, Israelis were afraid Iraq would unleash a chemical attack. Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. People took refuge in shelters and put on their gas masks. Fortunately, none of the missiles was armed with toxic chemicals.

People in line yesterday acknowledged that they had not kept their masks up to date; the government supplies the masks free of charge, but the filters that block the poisons must be replaced regularly. Some clutched kits designed for infants, who were now 5 and 6 years old.

On a routine day, about 3,500 Israelis update their masks and kits, which include syringes and antidotes to various toxins. Since the attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, that number has jumped to some 20,000 a day.

On Sunday, a record 36,000 Israelis crowded 28 Home Front Command stations to update their protective gear. Five additional centers have opened, and hours have been extended. The government is short about 600,000 kits, and the Finance Ministry has allocated $7 million to buy more.

The rush comes despite an assessment by the Israeli army that Iraq does not pose a serious threat to Israel, even if attacked by the United States. Officials here advised residents that there was no need to rush to get new masks.

Just the same, people at the mall yesterday wanted to feel safe. They have no idea what to expect. Would a war against terrorism be limited to Afghanistan? Would it engulf the region?

Many waiting to update chemical gear remember the Persian Gulf war, when Israel endured the Iraqi missile attacks. The United States is again wooing Arab partners for a broad coalition but seems shy about publicly involving Israel, raising concerns here that the country could again become a target.

Israelis are well aware that the gulf war left Iraq's Saddam Hussein in power. That war, Hoffman said, "has not ended. The Arab nations are stronger and the coalition is weaker. If America didn't want to take Saddam out then, it was a mistake."

Politics run the gamut in the gas mask line: Some are against any fighting. Others want the Israeli government to use the world's newfound outrage over terrorists to eliminate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Dror Karo, 52, was in line to get gas masks for himself, his wife and their two children, a son, 5, and daughter, 8. The threat is more psychological than real, Karo said, but he wants Israel to launch strikes of its own against the region's terrorist networks.

He is against Israel joining the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition.

"We have enough problems inside our own country with terrorists," he said. "We need to deal with our threats here, not in Afghanistan."

But he remembers unsealing the boxes a decade ago, when the warning sirens sounded and everyone believed that a terrible new age of warfare had begun.

So there he stood yesterday, in line with fellow citizens, clutching his dusty gas masks.

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