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Israel Tells Its Citizens to Ready Their 'Sealed Rooms'

March 19, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — Perched in stocking feet on her 8-year-old daughter's bed to reach the window, the red-haired mother of three struggled for a moment to secure a flapping sheet of plastic with heavy tape. Then she paused, moved aside a few stuffed animals and readjusted the Bart Simpson telephone on the shelf at her elbow. That made the going a little easier.

In what was seen as a near-final prelude to a U.S.-led war on Iraq, Israelis were urged by their government Tuesday to prepare "sealed rooms" -- equipped with water, food, radios, flashlights and gas masks -- where they could wait out any chemical or biological attack aimed at the Jewish state.

"Will this protect us? I don't know," said Razia Izraely, a vivacious 47-year-old who took a break from preparing dinner and watching over her daughters to get the sealed room -- ordinarily the bedroom of her youngest girl, Nur -- ready for the family's use. "But I have to do something ... whatever I can."

Sealed rooms are a legacy of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles, all of them carrying conventional warheads, at Israel. Only 20 hit Israeli soil; most of the others splashed into the sea or disintegrated in flight. One fell in the West Bank.

This time around, Israel says, its intelligence indicates that the possibility of an Iraqi attack is low. But for any Israeli old enough to remember that time, the call to once again ready sealed rooms has brought back memories of panicky days and fearful nights.

"My second-oldest, Lili, was only a baby then, and I had to put her into this device, a plastic tent with a breathing apparatus, and I was so afraid she would not be able to breathe correctly," Izraely recalled. "I thought I would die if anything happened to her."

Lili, now 12 and absorbed in a pencil drawing, rolled her eyes as she listened.

"Oh, Mom," she said.

Like the members of many families, the Izraelys have been having long discussions about how a missile alert, which could keep them cooped up together in the tiny room for hours waiting for an all-clear to sound, would affect them all.

The three girls expressed dismay that there would not be space in the 8-by-10-foot room -- which would have to hold the girls, their parents and an adult stepbrother -- for their menagerie of tropical birds, more than a dozen in all, which live in large cages on the balcony.

"Maybe just one?" said 15-year-old Nufar. Her favorite is a parrot that has been taught to offer a political critique of the Israeli prime minister.

"Bad Sharon! Bad!" it squawks.

"Ah, now we need to teach him to say: 'Bad Saddam! Bad!' " said their mother, and they all collapsed in giggles.

Then Izraely went back to her checklist of things to bring into the room: a damp towel to seal the door, games for the children, books for the adults. All the gas masks were already neatly stacked in a corner.

Israel has been preparing its citizens for months for the prospect of war. Thousands of families have had their gas-mask kits "refreshed" -- replaced with better models and fresh syringes of the drug atropine, an antidote to nerve gas.

But the pace of preparations has quickened in recent days. On Monday came the largest call-up yet of military reservists to help staff antimissile batteries and serve in the Home Front Command, a branch of the army that deals with civil defense.

Israelis have been flocking to supermarkets to stock up on staples -- bottled water, canned goods, oil and sugar. The national bus company, Egged, has issued protective chemical suits to drivers who might have to help with mass evacuations of cities. Video rental stores have offered special deals.

Israel changed its building regulations after 1991, and new apartments have to contain a special room meant to serve as a shelter, with fortified concrete walls and tightly fitted metal doors and shutters. Even such rooms, though, have to be augmented with plastic sealing over ducts and windows.

Anxiety about a potential attack is most acute in the Tel Aviv area, where most of the missiles fell in 1991. Hardest hit was the suburb of Ramat Gan, which lies just south of the Defense Ministry, the likely target.

Israeli officials have been striving to strike the right note between calming people and urging them to be ready for whatever comes.

"I liken our situation to that of someone driving a car: There's a general risk of an accident, so we take sensible precautions and wear a seat belt," said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. "We're preparing ourselves, but at the same time, our advice to people is to go about their daily lives."

On Tuesday, there were long lines at automated teller machines in Tel Aviv as people waited to take out whatever cash they could.

"I'm drawing on all our credit cards -- mine, my wife's and the kids'," said 42-year-old Alon Tzur.

"Me, I'm wearing all my jewelry all the time," said Sarit Ben-Yosef, proffering a slender arm bedecked with bracelets. "You never know what will happen. Best to be like a turtle and carry your house around!"

More than anywhere else in Israel, the young people in Tel Aviv tend to respond to crises with a strong impulse to party. During more than a month of attacks in 1991, the city's nightclubs were consistently packed, with many patrons carrying gas masks insouciantly draped over one arm.

These days of run-up to expected war coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim, during which many adults as well as children dress in party costumes. Twentysomething Orly Weider was done up Tuesday as the biblical Queen Esther, complete with glittery makeup and plastic crown, ready for a night on the town.

"Let them drop anything on us -- we all die in the end," she said. "It's a holiday. Let's be happy!"


Researcher Tami Zer contributed to this report.

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