Israeli town braces for another attack by Iraq

Some who stayed in 1991 say they'll leave this time

September 26, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMAT GAN, Israel - Eleven years ago, an Iraqi missile slammed into an apartment building on Abba Hillel Street, destroying the homes of dozens of families.

The municipality of Ramat Gan, a sprawling Tel Aviv suburb, quickly rebuilt the building on a far larger scale, making it nine stories instead of three, doubling the size of the apartments and providing each with a bomb shelter.

Many of the residents who were there when the missile struck came back, but some of them are beginning to think they should leave, now that the United States is threatening to attack Iraq.

Shual Saad, 63, an Israeli born in Iraq, hid in his closet shelter on Abba Hillel Street in 1991, only to have the walls collapse on him and his family when the missile hit. This time, the retired real estate agent wants to find another way to stay safe in case Iraq targets Israel for retaliation.

"I am not going to be home," Saad said, remembering rescuers pulling him and his wife from a pile of rubble. "Last time, I didn't have any place to go. I took my family into a sealed room when the warnings came. I won't make that mistake again - ever."

Israelis are readying themselves for the possibility of a second U.S.-led war against Iraq. The government is stockpiling 600,000 gas masks and millions of batteries. In recent days, 15,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics began receiving smallpox inoculations in case of a biological attack, and the government says it has enough vaccine to protect every citizen and tourist.

Filters to guard against toxic chemicals are being installed on pumps at water reservoirs. The army has deployed Patriot and Arrow missiles that would be aimed against missiles fired by Iraq.

Israeli officials insist that the country is prepared for any eventuality, but almost every day brings reports that undermine the assurances.

Every household is required to have a bomb shelter, and every citizen is required to have a gas mask, supplied at no cost by the government along with syringes containing atropine for use in case of chemical attacks. But more than 1 million Israelis need new syringes, the Israeli press has reported, and supplies may run short.

Some landlords have rented out bomb shelters as artists' studios, and officials concede that half of the nation's schools lack shelters large enough to accommodate all their students.

Mayor Zvi Bar has told residents that they should not feel guilty about leaving Ramat Gan if an attack appears imminent. He is seeking permission to build a tent city for evacuees and has set aside land in a national park for a mass cemetery.

Some officials characterized his talk of a mass exodus as unpatriotic, but the mayor's spokesman, Memy Peer, said Bar was merely being prudent.

"It is not heroic to sit at home and wait for a biological or a chemical missile," Peer said. "We are telling our residents that it is OK to leave. It is our obligation to give our citizens all the options." Four Iraqi Scud missiles struck Ramat Gan in 1991, injuring scores of people. One person died of a heart attack.

Peer said that Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv are more vulnerable than in 1991 because of their growth, increasing the chance of casualties. Some of the missiles that hit Ramat Gan exploded near the Diamond Exchange, not far from where a 68-story building is scheduled to open in January with the top 13 floors set aside for apartments.

Two blocks away is Abba Hillel Street, where residents remember listening for sirens and the hours spent breathing through gas masks in shelters.

"You are trapped like a mouse," said Saad, who was with his wife and three children, then 18, 16 and 12, when the missiles hit his building. "We had nowhere to go." He remembered furniture flying across the room in the blast and shards of glass becoming embedded in the refrigerator door.

His neighbor Menashe Shemesh, 62, another immigrant from Iraq, is angry at the mayor for encouraging residents to flee.

"The mayor tells us to go live in tents, to leave, but what does that mean?" the retired janitor said, agitated at the mere suggestion. "The enemy is being strengthened even though he has nothing."

Shemesh said he has no idea if war is coming. "But if there is, I'm 100 percent sure that missiles will be fired here, at the same place," he said. "But here, I am not afraid.

"I have no choice. Wherever a person goes, there is death. If once the missiles fell and just scratched me, then God is with me."

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