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Israelis Prepare for Possibility of Attack

by Naomi Segal

March 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

An American living in Israel, Michal Silverstein, tries on a gas mask at a Jerusalem mall, as an Israeli soldier holds her wide-eyed 11-month-old baby, Tova, on March 16. Photo by Brian Hendler

An American living in Israel, Michal Silverstein, tries on a gas mask at a Jerusalem mall, as an Israeli soldier holds her wide-eyed 11-month-old baby, Tova, on March 16. Photo by Brian Hendler

Twelve years after Purim celebrations in Israel marked the end of the first Persian Gulf War, Israelis spent the holiday this week preparing for the next war.

With a U.S. strike on Iraq imminent, Israeli upped civil defense preparations while officials repeated the assessment that Israeli involvement in the conflict was very unlikely.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday that there is a "1 percent" risk Israel would be the target of Iraqi retaliation for a U.S. military strike, but that Israel has taken steps to provide the answer to "100 percent of the dangers." Sharon made the remarks at a special Cabinet session devoted to Israeli preparedness for the war in Iraq.

Israeli security officials said Wednesday they expected an American-led military offensive in Iraq to begin shortly after the ultimatum issued by President Bush to Saddam Hussein expired early Thursday, Israel time. In a further sign of increased civil defense measures, a senior Israeli army officer told Army Radio on Wednesday that Israelis might be ordered later in the day to open their gas mask kits and carry them with them at all times.

The officer also said that a U.S. naval radar ship had already anchored in the Mediterranean to assist Israel's air defenses. The Israel Air Force has raised its level of alert, launching 24-hour sky patrols to intercept any attempt by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to dispatch hostile planes.

At the Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel will stress to the international community that it is not involved in the war with Iraq. Shalom also said Israeli missions abroad should heed the directive that comments on Iraq will be made only by government officials authorized to do so.

Despite the heightened civil and military defense preparations, the head of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi, told the meeting that Israel is more concerned about possible terrorist attacks during a war than an Iraqi missile attack.

Sharon said efforts to fight terrorism would continue unhindered.

Terror concerns prompted Israel to extend until Sunday a closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The closure, which was imposed March 15 amid concerns of terrorist attacks over the Purim holiday, originally was set to be lifted on Thursday. Israeli police went to the top alert level Wednesday. All vacations were canceled and officers were to begin working 12-hour shifts.

On the home front, retailers selling sealed-room supplies reported increased sales. The army's Home Front Command (HFC) on Tuesday had ordered the public to prepare sealed rooms for protection against potential chemical or biological attack.

The directive was the latest in a series of civil defense preparations that have been implemented over the past several months. But the instructions didn't help an Israeli Arab woman and her two teenaged sons, who suffocated while sleeping in a sealed room Sunday night due to lack of oxygen.

On Tuesday, the army issued call-up orders for several hundred reservists who serve in the HFC and anti-aircraft units. Military defensive measures also have been implemented, including the deployment in Israel of American Patriot missile batteries to back up Israel's Arrow anti-missile system.

Israel's fuel, electricity and water authorities said they were prepared to go on emergency footing, and a situation room was being opened in the infrastructure ministry in Jerusalem.

Hotels in Eilat, northern Israel, Jerusalem and other areas that are considered less likely targets of possible Iraqi missile attacks reported calls from Israelis eager to claim options reserved several weeks ago or to inquire about space.

Travel agents also reported heightened interest from Israelis about short-term travel abroad, mostly to Europe. Israeli airlines said they would continue to fly throughout a war, even adding additional flights to meet demand.

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