In Israel, gulf war revisited

Preparation: Residents scramble for supplies and try to ease children's fears of an Iraqi missile attack.

Deadline For Hussein

March 19, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel - The missiles, made of cardboard and plastic, stood in Rabin Square and posed no danger to anyone. So people crowded around and painted them - an exercise intended to ease fears about a repeat of the events of the first Persian Gulf war, when this city and its suburbs were struck by 39 Iraqi Scuds.

Yesterday, when the Israeli army for the first time ordered citizens to prepare sealed rooms to guard against a chemical attack from Iraq, Eli Stempler took his frightened 9-year-old daughter to Rabin Square and let her loose with a paintbrush.

"I told her that no missiles would come to Tel Aviv," said Stempler, 50, as he helped Hen color a small missile blue. "She's still a bit scared, but maybe by doing this she won't think the missiles are much to worry about."

After months of anxiety and speculation about when the United States might attack Iraq, Israeli officials issued their first official war announcement yesterday, overshadowing the festive holiday of Purim that features parades and children dressed in elaborate costumes.

Shortly after noon, the army interrupted television and radio programs to give instructions about the sealed rooms. Reservists were called to duty, and fighter jets began continuous patrols over the country.

"The American attack is in all probability unavoidable," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters during a tour of the Home Front Command headquarters yesterday, while once again emphasizing that the risk of an Iraqi attack against Israel is considered small.

Israeli authorities said there was a far greater threat from Palestinian militants than from Iraq, and the army continued its stepped-up offensive that has killed more than a dozen Palestinians in the past two days.

Israeli soldiers killed two Hamas leaders in the West Bank, Ali Alian and Nasser Assida, blamed by the army for orchestrating suicide bombings that killed 50 people. An Israeli reserve officer was killed in the shootout with Alian in a village near Bethlehem.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with Iraq to launch new strikes. Store owners throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip reported a surge in panicked buying.

In Ramallah yesterday, shopkeepers reported a run on rice, sugar, flour and canned goods. Those interviewed said that at the very least, they expect Israel to impose a tight military closure on their city and others during a war.

"I'm not expecting anything to happen from Iraq," said Mohammed Tayseer, 35, who works for the Palestinian Authority and has two children at home. "But I think the reason we are all out shopping is for a feeling of survival. People are scared. We got war from America on one side and curfews from Israel on the other."

Israeli officials would not say whether wartime curfews would be imposed on West Bank cities that have been under army occupation since last summer.

In Israel, residents scrambled to update gas mask kits, to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal rooms. Airlines reported a slight increase in the number of passengers leaving the country, and British Airways announced it would suspend operations in Israel starting today.

More than 100 public bus drivers were given protective suits in case they are needed to help evacuate people in the event of an attack, and the government asked physicians to postpone trips and remain in the country.

Inside the Home Front Command headquarters, about a dozen soldiers answering phones tried to help people who had lost their gas masks and talk with others who were simply scared. Many callers demanded to know the precise hour the war would start.

Pvt. Zik Yonatanov, 18, said calls began pouring in after President Bush's address, heard here at 3 a.m. "We have been unable to even close our eyes," Yonatanov said.

The army is trying to put people at ease. A 37-year-old woman and her two sons, 13 and 14, apparently worried about a missile strike, suffocated Monday as they slept in a sealed room, because a coal heater in an adjacent room consumed the oxygen.

In its notice yesterday, the army stressed that "there is currently no need for people to enter their protective spaces."

In Rabin Square, people were all smiles as they walked amid the fake Scuds, which were built by artist Sergio Daniel, 40. He said he got the idea from his 4-year-old son as the two built a cardboard model of the space shuttle Columbia, after its disintegration killed Israel's first astronaut.

"It helped him to understand what had happened, and I thought that maybe putting these missiles here would help people in a similar way," Daniel said as he watched people gawk at the missiles, some taller than an adult, others the height of a small child.

Over the past several days, people have painted bright colors, slogans and designs on the missiles - hearts, peace signs and ladybugs, along with phrases like "Love will win" and "Beam me up." One person scrawled in English, "Imagine there's no heaven."

Orna Elboher, a nanny, brought Yoav Epstein to the square. The toddler turns 2 tomorrow, and bounced from missile to missile, hurling paint at them from a dripping brush as Elboher held onto the hood of his jacket.

"I told him that these were pencils," Elboher said. "I don't want to think of them as missiles. I want to push that image out of my mind. You have to do that. There's so much trouble here, like terrorism and economics. We can't be unhappy all of the time."

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