If Iraq war comes, Israelis know drill

Preparedness: As the Israeli military stands watch, civilians all too familiar with conflict gather gas masks and stock up on survival gear.

February 26, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NETANYA, Israel - In a country where preparedness is a preoccupation, Israelis are gearing up for a possible war in Iraq with a vigilance that goes far beyond making quick trips to the hardware store for duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Residents in the Tel Aviv region recall the nightly air raid sirens during the first gulf war 12 years ago, and remember putting on gas masks and racing to bomb shelters as Iraqi missiles crashed nearby.

Now, there are new strategies for staying alive, and hardware stores devote entire departments to survival supplies.

Among the fast-selling items is a contraption called "More Air" that, by removing carbon dioxide from the air, enables people to remain longer in their sealed rooms. There are gas masks for pets and a $10 "peace of mind" kit stuffed with 65 yards of plastic, a box cutter, floor rag, flashlight, batteries, baking soda and tape.

"Most Israelis are used to this type of situation," said Hadas Yaniv, 28, a clerk at an emergency equipment store called Fire Center, in this coastal city north of Tel Aviv. "They've had to put gas masks on before. They've had to seal their rooms before. They come in here and know what they want."

The country is in emergency mode. Air raid sirens have been tested. Schoolchildren have practiced evacuating classrooms by sliding head-first down chutes from third-story windows. More than 300,000 foreign workers, even those in the country illegally, are being issued gas masks.

Israel faces threats on several fronts, among them the conflict with the Palestinians and that with the Hezbollah militia just across the fortified border with Lebanon. As a precaution, the army has positioned tanks in Israel's northernmost towns.

Officials are trying to encourage citizens to be vigilant without instilling panic. This month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon toured an Arrow missile base in northern Israel to show off the advanced system designed to intercept ballistic missiles.

"Yes, there is a danger," Sharon said at the Ein Shemer military base as be looked at the four missile batteries named Defensive Sword. "I assess it as a minor danger. I request that Israelis act calmly. There is no need to panic."

Sharon has assigned General Amos Gilad as Israel's national war spokesman, a move to provide a single, calm voice during any crisis. The former intelligence commander, meeting last week with foreign reporters, said the chances of an Iraqi missile strike on Israel are remote.

Army officials say Iraq lacks the ability to hit Israel, and that U.S. soldiers would quickly occupy western Iraq and prevent any remaining Scuds from being launched. Gilad noted repeatedly that "this is not Israel's war," but he could not conceal his glee at the possibility of Iraq being overrun.

"We expect, we hope, that Saddam Hussein will meet his destiny this year," Gilad said with a smile. "There is only one outcome for tyrants like him: They must leave their jobs. The U.S. does not want Israel in this war. We are going to respect that. But Saddam might think that it is in his best interests to entice us. It is time for him to go into pension, to find another place to live, and leave us alone."

Gilad declined to say what it would take to draw Israel into a war against Iraq, but other army commanders have indicated that Israeli forces would not hesitate to retaliate if hit with chemical or biological weapons.

In the event of war, Israelis would be required to carry their government-issued gas masks at all times. During an attack, air raid sirens would sound, and radio and television programs would be interrupted with emergency notices and the alert phrase "Iron Wall."

While foreign workers get masks, with a $20 refundable deposit, Palestinians living in the West Bank do not, even though hundreds of thousands have been living under Israeli occupation since last summer.

When humanitarian groups petitioned Israel's highest court, arguing that the nation has a moral obligation to protect civilians living under occupation, the justices ruled that Israel was not required to provide gas masks and noted that the army was not preventing the Palestinian Authority from distributing them.

All buildings constructed in Israel since the Persian Gulf war in 1991 are required to have rooms that can be quickly sealed for use as a protective space. Most apartment buildings and many homes have bomb shelters.

Jerusalem, considered an unlikely target because of its large Arab population and Muslim holy sites, has been designated a "city of refuge." Hotels are preparing for an influx of up to 40,000 people from the Tel Aviv area.

Tour agencies are offering deals for residents to escape to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, far from Israel's other population centers. Authorities are encouraging airlines to fly even during a war, and Israel's national airline, El Al, has contingency plans to fly out of an airport away from Tel Aviv.

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