As Deadline for War Approaches, Israelis Play a Surreal Waiting Game

Men clad in green-and-red rubber oxygen suits bore injured Israelis, their heads lolling off the sides of stretchers, to wailing ambulances.

It was only a police training exercise to prepare for a possible “mega-terror attack” with non-conventional weapons at Ben-Gurion Airport.

But as an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq approaches — and Israel braces for the possibility that Iraq may respond by lashing out at the Jewish state, as it did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War — Israelis are bombarded daily with images of impending hostilities, such as the training exercises or hulking Patriot missile batteries posted just off the beach in Jaffa.

Clouds of war have been hovering above the region for months, and the wait has blunted some of their power. Just a week before what most Israelis believe will be a final American ultimatum to Iraq, the mood in Israel is devoid of panic; it could even be called placid.

According to a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Israeli defense establishment actually is concerned that the public is too calm.

The official conceded that authorities have served the public an often contradictory menu of warnings.

Sparking mild waves of panic, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, chief spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Force, announced last week that the public should begin to prepare sealed rooms and ensure that their gas masks and atropine shots — used to counter certain types of nerve gas — are in order.

Then, fearing hysteria and stampedes on hardware stores and gas mask distribution centers, authorities seemed to backtrack. The chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, told an Israeli television station that same evening that “there are no surface-to-surface missiles in western Iraq right now,” the only area from which Iraqi Scud missiles could hit Israel.

And then there was the police drill. Broadcast on all three Israeli television networks, the exercise, meant to fine tune cooperation among the several bodies that would respond to a chemical weapons attack, did little to allay public fears.

The uncertainty over war even is finding expression in Israeli satire. On a recent episode of a popular TV show, two comedians dressed as soldiers wearing gas masks in sealed rooms cheered when an Israeli official announced that war with Iraq had been postponed.

Jubilantly, the soldiers stripped from the windows the tape and plastic sheeting used to seal rooms, and threw off their gas masks.

Seconds later, the official’s voice returned, saying that, actually, war was imminent. Feverishly, the comedians threw up new tape and plastic to seal the room; the cycle was repeated several times.

The skit seemed to capture the emotional uncertainty Israelis have been living with for months.

“How many times can you cry wolf?” asked Nomi Baum of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Pscyhotrauma. “The first scare was in October; it passed. Then came the January deadline; it also passed, as did the new moon of early March. Israelis have simply become a little apathetic to the war.”

The real stress, Baum said, comes from the country’s economic malaise and the constant fear of terror attacks.

In Jaffa, the new home of Israel’s largest battery of Patriot anti-missile missiles, residents’ reactions to the possibility of war seemed to confirm Baum’s comments.

“Seeing those limp bodies and men in oxygen suits does not exactly comfort us,” said Shaul Rokach of Jaffa’s Buy Fish — Don’t Worry wholesale fish store, referring to the televised police drill.

Nevertheless with war looming ever closer, Rokach is one of only about 10 percent of Israelis who say they will not seal a room and have not prepared gas masks.

“Listen, at the end of the day we have enough problems with the Palestinians and suicide bombings,” he said. “Anyway, I don’t think we’ll see any Scuds.”

Symbolizing the surreal nature of these days of waiting, the Patriot battery in Jaffa’s Ajame neighborhood has become a somewhat macabre tourist attraction.

This past Saturday, hundreds of Israelis approached the barbed wire surrounding the little base that has sprung up in this largely Arab community, trying to catch a better glimpse of the missiles and the American soldiers manning them.

Retirees Dalia and Arieh Amir strolled about a sandbank overlooking the batteries, holding hands. The couple, now sexagenarians, fell in love in this neighborhood when they were youths, and for 40 years lived just a few yards from where the missiles are now posted.

The couple marveled at the contrast between the army base that had been set up in the sand dunes and the shimmering sea behind it.

“We decided to take a little vacation to come back to the old neighborhood, and of course to visit these things,” Dalia Amir said, pointing toward one of the Patriots.

Abdel Kadir parked his pickup truck on the bank of a dune just behind the missile batteries. He, his wife and three screaming children in the back of the cab had arrived from the Israeli Arab town of Taibeh, near Netanya.

“You see, I’m unemployed and we figured we’d take a day to see the sights of Tel Aviv and Jaffa,” Kadir explained. “For the kids something like this is much more interesting than seeing a museum.

“Plus,” he noted, “it’s free.”

Besides tourism and security, the Patriot missiles have boosted the neighborhood’s flagging restaurant business. Munching on a cucumber, Atina Salame, 56, owner of the renowned Atina et Raouf fish restaurant, poked at a reporter’s notebook.

“Write this down: These missiles are the best thing that has happened to us here,” she said. “We served 200 meals last Saturday, more than we have since the outbreak of the intifada” more than two years ago.

Until last weekend, Jaffa’s once-bustling restaurants had been desolate.

“Either they’re afraid or they want to punish the Arabs after every terror attack,” Salame said of Jewish customers who had stopped coming to the mixed Jewish-Arab city. Business is down by at least half from its pre-intifada peak, Salame estimated

But the missile batteries also have engendered no small amount of anxiety in the neighborhood. Peter Salame, 22, Atina’s goateed nephew, feared that if the missiles are used “the explosion from their launch could shatter the entire neighborhood’s windows.”

In addition, he said, his mother is frantic with worry that Iraq will target the missile battery, or that one of the missiles will explode upon launching.

Defense Ministry officials describe the likelihood of either scenario as “very low.”

“What I would really like to see,” Atina Salame mused, “is people coming here because there is peace.

“If peace breaks out, it’s fish on the house for a week,” she laughed, and went back to chewing on her cucumber.

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