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Israel prepares for Scuds, but doubts Iraq will strike

JERUSALEM, Dec. 17 (JTA) — Iraq is unlikely to target Israel as it did during the 1991 Gulf War, Israeli army intelligence officials are saying. Just the same, some 90 gas mask distribution centers throughout Israel opened after the United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox against Iraq on Wednesday. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Palestinians staged angry protests against the joint military action. In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen warned of a “very severe consequence from the United States” if Iraq targets the Jewish state. “We would hope that Saddam would not act foolishly in striking Israel. But the Israelis, of course, are prepared for any potential type of attack upon their country,” Cohen said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck this note of Israeli preparedness when he spoke about the U.S. air strikes. Declaring that Israel is not involved in the Persian Gulf conflict, he emphasized Thursday the country would nevertheless be ready should Iraq respond to the air strikes by firing missiles at the Jewish state. “We are not part of the conflict and do not intend to become part of it. But we are ready for any possibility,” he said. Speaking on Israel Radio, the premier asked Israelis to follow the instructions of the defense establishment. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said Thursday that Israel was getting continuous updates from the Americans on the situation. Despite its assessment that an attack from Baghdad is unlikely, the army instructed Israeli citizens to update their gas mask kits and obtain plastic sheeting and other materials that are used to prepare sealed rooms against possible chemical or biological weapons attack. Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, the head of research in the army intelligence branch, said that in a final, desperate measure, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could fire non-conventional weapons at Israel. The Iraqi leader “is presently preoccupied with his survival,” he said. “His primary objective is to preserve his strategic capabilities while bringing an end to sanctions against Iraq. Saddam Hussein is currently involved in defending himself from the United States. “Our present assessment, as it was in the past, is that while he may consider them, he will not take steps against Israel which could open up another front against him,” Gilad told Israel Radio. Meanwhile, the army called up reservists to staff the gas mask distribution centers. It also began deploying batteries of Patriot missiles, which were used to intercept Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War. The Palestinians, who backed Iraq in 1991, called on the United States to cease this week’s air strikes. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Iraqi people had suffered enough and that force is an unacceptable mode of resolving the crisis. Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during angry protests against the U.S. air strike. Shouting, “Beloved Saddam, hit Tel Aviv,” the protesters burned Israeli and American flags and yelled angry taunts against President Clinton, who only days before had been hailed as a hero by Palestinians for his visit to Gaza. The crisis in the Gulf overshadowed the domestic political turmoil here. Just the same, Netanyahu’s dramatic announcement Wednesday that he might call next week for early elections set campaign wheels in motion. Iraq was high on the agenda at a news conference that opposition leader Ehud Barak called Thursday. Barak, who said the government’s days were numbered, warned that the risk of the collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians presently poses a more serious danger to Israel than the threat from Iraq. Barak, a former army chief, was focused less on how to defeat Netanyahu than on avoiding a split in the left-wing vote between himself and the man who recently stepped down as the army chief of staff, Amnon Shahak. There has been much speculation over who might ultimately be the prime ministerial candidate for a new centrist party expected to emerge on the scene. Possible candidates include Shahak, Likud Knesset member Dan Meridor and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo. Officials in the Labor Party have been pressing Shahak to join the Labor list rather than run separately. The latter scenario could split the vote and require a runoff in the prime ministerial vote. Barak would not comment on how serious a rival he considers Shahak. But he said the Labor Party will welcome Shahak “with open arms” if he chooses to join it.