Israelis Prepare to Hunker Down As Bombs Rain on Afghan Targets

Israelis have gone on heightened alert after the launch of a joint U.S.-British strike against Taliban and suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

Still, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and other 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.

That same day, 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 Sunday 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.”

Israel received an early warning of the U.S.-British attack on targets in Afghanistan, according to Israeli media reports.

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

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was slated to convene a meeting of military and intelligence officials on Sunday to discuss the implications of the attack.

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.

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.

As the likelihood of an attack on Afghani targets grew in recent weeks, Israelis flocked to Home Front centers to obtain gas masks.

Sources at the Defense Ministry were quoted as saying that the Afghanistan operation was not Israel’s war. Just the same, according to Army Radio, the air force and other IDF units were placed on high alert.

Announcing the start of the U.S.-British operation during a televised address Sunday, Bush hinted that other countries besides Afghanistan could face U.S. military action if they continue to give support to terrorists.

“Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader,” Bush said. “In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.”

Bush also reiterated that the war on terror is not a war on Islam.

“The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people, and we are the friends of a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith,” he said.

“The United States of America is an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name.”

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