Behind the Headlines: Israel Readies for Attack but Doubts Iraq Will Strike

Israelis are hearing conflicting opinions over the latest crisis with Iraq — and no matter what the experts say, it appears they are preparing for the worst-case scenario.

On the one hand, there are the comments by Richard Butler, head of the U.N. weapons inspections team. Butler’s remarks that Iraq had enough biological material “to blow away Tel Aviv” captured banner headlines in the Israeli press and brought back disturbing memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when 39 Scud missiles were fired on Israel.

But according to experts like Israel’s former chief of staff, Dan Shomron, and Reserve Gen. Avihu Bin-Nun, the commander of the Israeli air force during the Gulf War, the chances for an Iraqi missile attack on Israel now are “very, very slim.”

As the United States mustered support this week in Europe and the Middle East for possible military action against Iraq, which has snubbed the U.N. weapons inspections teams, Baghdad had yet to threaten the Jewish state.

The circumstances this time, said Bin-Nun, are different. There is no international coalition for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to try to break up by provoking Israel to attack; Iraq’s military capability is more limited than it was seven years ago; and Saddam realizes that an Israeli counterattack might be too difficult to endure.

In an effort to turn public opinion, Iraqi spokesmen bent over backward to describe Butler’s comments regarding a possible attack on Tel Aviv as a deliberate American provocation. “He chose Tel Aviv,” wrote the government- controlled Al-Jumhuriya, “because he knows that this will move the USA, under the pressures of the Zionist lobby, to attack Iraq.”

Other Israeli military experts echoed Bin-Nun’s comments.

The American response also appears to be different this time. In 1991, Israel, under pressure from the Bush administration, refrained from responding to the missiles, all armed with conventional warheads. The attacks caused property damage and only two blast-related deaths.

At a news conference held over the weekend in Jerusalem after she met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “Nothing will shake the iron-clad commitment of the U.S. when it comes to the security of Israel.”

Albright would not respond to a question about whether the United States had asked Israel to refrain from responding to an Iraq attack, but she indicated that Washington would not oppose Israeli military action.

“It is obviously always up to each country to determine its own way of defending itself,” Albright said.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu stressed that Israel alone would decide how to defend itself.

“We will respond as needed, to protect Israel and fortify its national security,” he said. “We are the only ones making the decision.”

This week, heads of the defense establishment tried to reassure the Israeli public that even in the unlikely event of renewed missile attacks, the home front was much better prepared than in the past, and that anti-missile rockets were much more effective now in intercepting Scud missiles.

Four batteries of U.S.-produced Patriot anti-ballistic missiles were deployed in the Negev in southern Israel on Monday in a move described by the army spokesman as part of “routine training drills.”

This came, even as some members of Knesset criticized the policy of the Netanyahu government to keep its preparations vague in order to reduce panic.

Despite these reassurances, Israelis are facing some troubling reports.

Prior to the Gulf War, every Israeli was given a gas mask in case of a chemical attack. Only after the war did it turn out that had a chemical attack taken place, the masks would not have done much good.

And no matter what the experts and politicians say, some Israelis aren’t prepared to take any chances.

“Seven years ago, we didn’t think twice,” said Tamar Golan of Haifa, “as soon as the war broke out we packed a few belongings and our 3-year-old daughter and went on a long trip overseas.

“If need be,” she said this week, “we would do the same. None of us want to be heroes.”

There also appeared to be evidence that, as critics are charging, Israel is not fully prepared for an Iraqi attack.

At least one municipal official charged this week that some 300 thousand pupils lacked proper shelters. The Education Ministry confirmed that there was a problem, but added, without elaborating, that it had “contingency plans how to act in case of emergency.”

Reuven Pedatzur, a military analyst for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, said, “We are not better prepared, and if chemical warheads hit Tel Aviv, the casualties will be much higher than 300 to 400 people.”

Just to be on the safe side, however, concerned citizens lined up in front of the gas mask distribution stations to make sure that their masks were still fit.

It was also reported that the United States had agreed, in principle, to send Israel vaccines against biological agents, including Anthrax, that Iraq is believed to possess.

However, experts like Eran Dolev, who headed the medical corps during the Gulf War, explained this week that such inoculations have their side effects and should therefore be used only on limited segments of the population whose immune systems are weaker — such as the elderly.

Meanwhile, as most Israelis weighed the possibility of missile attacks, a few saw a business opportunity.

The Amos Gazit firm is offering a protection suit that is made of several layers of film and strong cloth. The company, claiming that the suit is totally germ-proof, is asking between $600 to $900 per suit.

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