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Israelis watch warily as U.S. attacks Afghanistan

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JERUSALEM, Oct. 8 (JTA) — Israelis have gone on heightened alert after the launch of joint U.S.-British strikes against Taliban and suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

Still, top officials said they believe the attacks would have no immediate repercussions on the lives of Israelis.

“At this stage, I don’t see a danger” that Israel might be the target of retaliatory attacks, Peres said Sunday, shortly after the United States launched its first attacks on Afghanistan. Another series of attacks were launched Monday.

Just in case, however, Israelis packed gas mask distribution centers despite the official assurances that they were not in danger.

In a video released Sunday, suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden attempted to link the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In videotaped remarks broadcast over Qatar’s al-Jazeera television, bin Laden said, “I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine.”

Though he stopped short of taking responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden warmly praised them.

“America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God what America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted,” he said.

“Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more 80 years,” he added, calling President Bush the “head of the infidels.”

Until now, Islamic extremists who have justified the Sept. 11 attacks have not focused primarily on American support for Israel. Bin Laden’s comments on the subject appeared to be an attempt to rally Islamic support and cast the U.S.-led effort for an international anti-terror coalition as an attack on Islam.

The United States has “come out to fight Islam in the name of fighting terrorism,” bin Laden said.

“God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims to destroy America,” he said. “May God bless them and allot them a place in heaven.”

On Monday, Peres criticized bin Laden for linking the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States to the Palestinian cause.

“What’s he blabbering about?” Peres told Israel Radio. “You don’t need any war of liberation for the Palestinians. We offered them liberation without war.”

In the first official comment from Jerusalem after the attacks, Peres praised the “brave decision” by Bush.

“I think that all us, first of all, are praying for the welfare of the American army and its allies,” Peres told Israel’s Channel Two television.

That same day, the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command held an emergency session to deal with the possibility of retaliatory strikes against the Jewish state. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel — which was not part of the coalition against Iraq — in retaliation for the U.S.-led attacks.

Sharon, who spoke with Bush about an hour before Sunday’s attacks, told reporters, “Israel supports the war on Afghanistan, but isn’t involved,” according to Israel Television.

His office stated Monday that Israel has taken all necessary measures to protect its citizens.

The Defense Ministry assured the country Monday that the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan “does not raise any threats for Israel.”

Israeli commentators said the assessment could change if the United States targets Iraq in subsequent phases of the campaign.

In the meantime, Israel must show restraint, according to Ha’aretz analyst Ze’ev Schiff, who wrote that Israel should not look for an opportunity to strike Palestinian targets by using the U.S.-British action in Afghanistan as cover.

The general consensus in Jerusalem is that Israel is willing to sit out the war, watching it on television, commented Ehud Ya’ari, an Arab affairs analyst for Channel Two.

“This will be a celebration of media,” Ya’ari said. “The Taliban wants a direct pipeline to the West,” and is likely to use al-Jazeera as a messenger.

In the weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Israelis have been gearing up for possible chemical warfare. They’ve been stocking up on gas masks and related equipment, and it’s been a boon for the local companies supplying the goods.

The Netanya-based Fire Center Ltd. opened several years ago to offer fire safety services. Since Sept. 11, the company has been running dramatic advertisements linked to the possibility of chemical-weapon attacks.

“Emergency!!!” reads a red-and-yellow ad that appeared in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Gas Masks — Filters — Gas Protection Suits — Safety Equipment For Shelters.”

The store’s supplies are starting to run low, marketing manager Mickey Malkin said.

The Fire Center also has a showroom with a model of what a secure room should look like, Malkin said.

As Israelis prepared this week for the Simchat Torah holiday, they purchased colorful plastic flags for their children and challot for the festive meals, but plastic sheeting and tape were low on the shopping list. Plastic sheeting is used to cover windows in order to create sealed rooms in case of chemical warfare.

“No one’s snatching it up,” said one hardware store owner, pointing toward his supply of plastic sheeting and duct tape. “I guess they’re not worried yet.”

(JTA Foreign Editor Mitchell Danow and Intern Amy Sara Clark in New York contributed to this report.)

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