Israelis seem to feel Iraqi peril has faded

Despite army's warnings, high state of alert, many do without gas masks

War In Iraq

March 25, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel - All appeared to be normal here yesterday. Office workers took lunchtime strolls along the seaside promenade, and shoppers casually explored the sidewalks and stores of the business district. Hardly anybody carried a gas mask.

Despite warnings from the Israeli army that the threat of a missile attack from Iraq has not ended and that every Israeli needs to remain vigilant, many residents seem to have concluded for themselves that the danger has passed.

On a blustery, overcast day, more people walked around with umbrellas to protect themselves against the threat of rain than with the bulky brown boxes packed with gas masks that the government issued to every citizen.

`Overblown'

"I'm confident that you Americans are doing a great job and that the threat here was overblown," said Maty Razi, 40, as he walked to an appointment carrying a cellular phone, but no gas mask. He said he never even opened the box.

"I'm angry at my government for spending so much money on this alert," he said.

Israel went on a high state of alert hours before the first bombs fell on Baghdad last week. Everyone was ordered to prepare gas masks in case of a chemical attack, thousands of army reservists were called up, and fighter jets began round-the-clock patrols.

No missiles have been fired at Israel this time around, and U.S. soldiers control most of western Iraq near the border with Jordan, the area from which Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel 12 years ago. But the U.S. Army has cautioned that its troops have not conquered the area and cannot guarantee that Israel is safe.

Gas mask reminder

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that the high state of alert, which is costing $2 million a day, will remain in effect for at least several more days, and he reminded residents to carry their gas masks at all times.

"The probability that we will be attacked is very low," Mofaz said. "Thus we can feel secure, but without making light, not becoming complacent. At this moment, the threat has not been removed."

Signs were everywhere that Israelis were beginning to shrug off their fears. The air force reduced its patrols, and several commercial airlines announced that they would resume flights to Israel today. School attendance, which had dropped to about 50 percent in Tel Aviv last week, reached 80 percent yesterday.

`A little bit scared'

About the only people seen here carrying gas masks were soldiers and students, who can be disciplined if caught not following orders.

Ehud Soloman, 34, was one of the few people spotted with his gas mask box swaying from a shoulder strap.

"To tell you the truth, I'm still a little bit scared," he said. "The TV keeps telling us that we need to carry the masks. It's obvious that I'm a rarity, but I think the people who should feel silly are the ones who aren't carrying them."

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