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A Patriot Missile Defense System Bristles Along an Israeli Beach

March 05, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JAFFA, Israel — The location is possibly the worst kept secret in town. As night darkened the Mediterranean waters Tuesday, commuters cruised to the beach to gawk at the sudden outcrop of portable army headquarters, olive tents and trucks. Floodlights split the twilight, Arabic music spilled from open car windows and women stood whispering.

Locals dubbed this beach "mountain of rubbish," a scenic stretch of sand that was smothered long ago by garbage. It is here, atop a municipal trash heap in a primarily Arab neighborhood, that the steel bodies of the U.S. Patriot missile defense systems were raised from a makeshift military base.

"It looks wonderful," said Yosi Levy, an Israeli laborer who motored to the waterfront for a glimpse of the Patriots. But at his side, his wife blanched. "We managed to survive before, but what if it's worse this time?" Nurit Levy said. "The sight of it doesn't calm me down -- not at all."

Over the last week, troops from the United States and Israel have secured the beach with guards and barbed wire, hastily set up a village and hunkered down to wait for a possible war with Iraq -- and a much-feared retaliatory assault that Washington and Israel regard as a potential, if unlikely, blow to regional stability. On Tuesday, with a sense of deja vu, Israel watched as the antimissile Patriots were hauled out of storage and set up in the semi-secret encampments around Tel Aviv.

"We're hoping it will be good for business," said Ovadia Saba, whose seaside fish restaurant lies a stone's throw from the temporary military base. "I've got more clients because people are coming to see."

The heavily hyped, U.S.-manufactured Patriot system became the butt of bitter jokes after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it failed to intercept a slew of Iraqi Scuds. The city of Ramat Gan was badly battered when 39 missiles crashed to earth. Since then, with funding from the United States, Israel has developed a missile defense of its own -- the $2-billion Arrow is the backbone of the Jewish state's defense strategy, bolstered by U.S., Israeli and German Patriots.

Meanwhile, Israel's army intelligence chief urged a government defense panel Tuesday to expect the United States to attack Iraq as soon as next week. Although Baghdad is unlikely to use ground-to-ground missiles against Israel, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could launch a chemical or conventional assault, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash said. "If Saddam feels he has his back against the wall," Farkash said, "he will try to hit Israel."

The people in the streets and parks of Jaffa greeted the bulky Patriot encampment with a mix of trepidation, gratitude and annoyance. Neighbor boys hovered on the grass across the way, craning their necks to watch the cargo trucks rumble in and out of the camp. Amina Ajabariya, 38, sat with her two young daughters as a winter sunset streaked the sky, gazing at the bustle of the soldiers on the beach.

"Nobody asked us. It's as if we weren't people -- they just put it there," she said. "There are other places that are more remote. Why here?"

Ajabariya doesn't have shutters to shield her windows from the force of the blasts, and she said she isn't sure how to prepare her home. Her daughters are skittish, she said, and the arrival of the Patriots only made them jumpier.

"Why doesn't [Ariel] Sharon take the Patriots to his house?" she asked, referring to the Israeli prime minister.

U.S. troops are stationed alongside Israelis at the beach base -- but the Americans are under orders to stay inside the walled-off encampment, said an Israeli officer who identified himself only as a military source. "They do want very much to get out," he said. "They ask a lot about Jerusalem. They ask about the bars in town, but unfortunately they can't go out and look."

The fresh crown of military accouterments forms a new layer on a landscape already scattered with the remnants of conflict. Chunks of glass and stone from a tony cluster of Arab villas still glitter on the beach -- the houses were demolished after many of the old Arab families left Jaffa in 1948. Israelis say they fled; Arabs say they were driven out. Later, to the ire of residents, the city began to dump trash onto what had been a secluded beach.

A neighborhood couple who identified themselves only as Oded and Tamar strolled down to the beach to haggle in Hebrew with the soldiers. "We've come to complain about the lights," Tamar said. "They're shining into our house, and they told us they would do something about it."

Her husband shrugged.

"All of Israel is a big military camp," Oded said. "It doesn't matter where the bases are."

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