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Threat of Possible Iraqi Attack Hasn’t Rattled Most Israelis — Yet

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Despite some recent saber-rattling in Washington, Israel’s gas mask distribution centers have not been overly busy.

In the past, Israelis would rush to the distribution centers whenever tensions between Washington and Baghdad escalated, fearing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would attack Israel if the United States attacked Baghdad.

These days, however, Israelis seem quite calm — as if they know something that President Bush does not.

The Israeli public’s apparent indifference to the possibility of an Iraqi attack can be traced to three main reasons:

Virtually every Israeli citizen, regardless of age, already has a gas mask at home;

An American attack against Iraq is not perceived here as imminent; and

When you already think twice before leaving home for fear of a Palestinian terror attack, you don’t worry so much about Saddam.

In a recent poll conducted by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Iraq ranked third on the list of “gravest dangers.”

Only 9 percent of the Israeli respondents cited Iraq as the gravest danger currently facing the nation, far less than the 30 percent who cited the Palestinians and the 27 percent who worried most about Iran.

The apparent apathy about Iraq comes amid frequent hints from Washington that Baghdad could be the next target in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. It also comes despite frequent warnings that Iraq is likely to attack Israel if Washington targets Iraq.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, issued just such a warning in a recent interview with Ma’ariv. Kurtzer refused to state whether the United States would demand that Israel refrain from joining a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, as happened during the 1991 Gulf War.

At the time, Israel bowed to U.S. pressure and did not respond to a series of deadly Scud missile attacks that Iraq launched at Israel.

Kurtzer did say that if the United States attacks Iraq, or becomes involved “in any other anti-terror operations,” then U.S. officials would make a point of consulting with their Israeli counterparts beforehand.

Like Kurtzer, Israeli military officials consider an Iraqi strike against Israel highly likely should the United States target Saddam’s regime.

“Iraq will launch missiles against Israel only if Saddam Hussein feels that his life or his rule are threatened,” Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, the head of military intelligence, said this week.

However, considering that a U.S. attack on Iraq probably would aim to bring down Saddam’s regime, there is much reason to expect an Iraqi attack on Israel, he said.

Just the same, officials such as Ze’evi-Farkash are optimistic that Israel can repel an Iraqi attack.

“Iraqi is capable of sending combat aircraft to bomb targets in Israel with conventional and nonconventional weapons,” he said. “But we are confident that the air force can cope with that danger.”

As part of its defenses, Israel is relying on its Patriot anti-missile system.

During Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, Patriot missile batteries were deployed in strategic positions across Israel.

The only defense against ground-to-ground missiles at the time, Patriots were launched at the 39 Scuds that Iraq fired on Israel in the course of the war.

Many missed their targets, but the Patriot system has been upgraded considerably since then.

Last August, Israel successfully tested the latest version of another anti-missile system, the Arrow. In what was the ninth such test, the Arrow last week destroyed a simulated Scud over the Mediterranean Sea.

The Arrow missile system is part of a $2.2 billion project known as Choma — Hebrew for “Wall” — designed to counter missile attacks.

Israeli intelligence officials say Iraq has “several dozen” long-range missiles.

According to Ze’evi-Farkash, there is no information available about Iraq’s capability for biological warfare.

This may explain why Israeli authorities have refrained from immunizing the Israeli public against a possible Anthrax attack, although Israel reportedly possesses sufficient stock of vaccines.

According to some critics of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Iraqi issue has affected his handling of the Palestinian intifada.

Sharon said this week that he does not intend to bring down the Palestinian Authority, despite the deteriorating security situation. He made the comment Tuesday in response to calls from members of his Likud Party to adopt a tougher stance toward the Palestinians.

“I don’t intend to sit in Gaza,” he sharply told a Likud legislator who had called for a more aggressive Israeli response to the latest wave of Palestinian terror.

Sharon’s critics are charging that diplomatic constraints are preventing him from ordering a broader military response.

Sharon is hamstrung by U.S. pressure, they say, because the United States is concerned that an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could interfere with U.S. attempts to get Arab states into a broad anti-Saddam coalition.

As the political and diplomatic wrangling continues, some Israelis are confident that a military confrontation with Iraq is just a matter of time.

Nofar High-Tech, an Israeli firm, recently developed a portable shelter designed to provide protection against biological and chemical warfare.

The “safe room,” which can be placed in any backyard, comes equipped with water and air filters. Each unit costs $40,000.

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