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Israelis Prepare for Life in the Bull's-Eye Again

Mideast: Many fear attack by Iraq if war erupts. But unlike in '91, nation might hit back.

September 26, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — In the corner of a parking garage in Israel's largest shopping mall, a peculiar ritual is taking place. All day, streams of people arrive carrying what appear to be shoe boxes with black plastic shoulder straps. Soldiers sitting behind folding tables open each box, remove and inspect the gas mask inside and replace any outdated parts.

In most countries, this would be considered an odd, even paranoid practice. In Israel, it is accepted as a part of life--especially lately, as talk of a U.S. military attack on Iraq has swelled the lines at the gas mask stations and reminded Israelis that, as during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they are likely to be the bull's-eye for any Iraqi retaliation.

One important difference: There are indications that this time Israel might strike back.

Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the Gulf War, most of which either were shot down or exploded in unpopulated areas. Israelis feared attacks with chemical or biological weapons, but the Scuds were equipped with conventional warheads.

Still, two people were killed and more than 200 injured in the attacks, and nearly everyone living in Israel at the time has indelible memories of air raid sirens, gas masks and rooms sealed with tape and plastic sheeting.

Most Israelis seem certain they are about to experience deja vu.

Sales of bottled water, canned tuna, televisions and VCRs have soared. The factory that produces gas masks for the government is working triple shifts to keep up with demand.

Shavrav, a company that makes a $1,000 home-filtration system that it claims will protect people from chemical and biological agents as well as radiation, can't keep up with demand.

"The main question is: When can you install it?" said company President Mordechai Larry. "They don't even ask the price. They want it yesterday."

For all the concern, Israeli officials and defense analysts insist that the country is in far less danger from an Iraqi attack than it was nearly 12 years ago. Iraq is a weaker opponent than it was during the Gulf War, they say.

"I don't think they've been able to save more than a few launchers and at the most a few tens of Al-Hussein missiles that can reach us," said Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. The Al-Hussein is an Iraqi variation of the Soviet Scud B missile.

Even if Iraq has chemical or biological weapons, as the United States and Britain claim, it is another matter to effectively deliver them in a missile warhead, Feldman and others say.

In addition, Israel says it is far better equipped to defend itself than it was during the Gulf War, when the United States hurriedly delivered mobile Patriot missile launchers to shoot down Scuds. Critics have said that the Patriots were ineffective and that casualties were relatively low only because the Scuds were such crude missiles.

A Touted Defense Shield

Since then, the Patriots have been improved, Israeli officials say. But, more important, Israel and the U.S. have jointly developed the Arrow antiballistic missile system, which officials here are touting as a nearly foolproof shield.

"We will destroy all the missiles that are fired on us within five minutes, without the citizens of Israel even feeling it," Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri boasted to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Not everyone is quite so confident about the Arrow.

"We have no evidence that it will work against a real ballistic missile," said Reuven Pedatzur, director of the Galili Center for Strategy and National Security at Tel Aviv University and one of Israel's leading experts on antimissile defense.

True, Pedatzur said, the Arrow has performed brilliantly in tests. But, he said, "all the tests are very sterile tests.... During the war, it will be different."

So is he worried? Not particularly. Pedatzur is among those who believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will think twice about attacking Israel this time, particularly with unconventional weapons--"because he knows exactly what Israel has," Pedatzur said, "and he is going to be deterred."

At the urging of the United States, Israel refrained from retaliating during the Gulf War. The thinking was that an Israeli entry into the war would alienate the United States' Arab allies and fracture the broad coalition arrayed against Iraq.

This week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office denied a New York Times report that the Israeli leader had told the Bush administration that his nation would strike back this time if hit by Iraqi missiles.

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former ambassador to Israel, told the Los Angeles Times this month that he believes Sharon's government would hold back if Iraq fired conventional missiles and would strike back with conventional weapons if hit by a chemical attack. If Israelis were hit with biological weapons, he added, "I have no doubt that they will give it everything they've got."

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