Crisis in Iraq Israelis Spend Purim Preparing to Seal Rooms Ahead of Iraq War

Twelve years after Purim celebrations in Israel marked the end of the first Persian Gulf War, Israelis spent the holiday this week preparing for the next war.

With an American attack on Iraq imminent, the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command on Tuesday ordered the public to prepare sealed rooms for protection against potential chemical or biological attack.

The army said the public should not yet open their gas mask kits.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said President Bush’s speech Monday giving dictator Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war motivated the decision to heighten the level of civil defense readiness.

At the same time, Mofaz reiterated the view that an Iraqi attack on Israel in response to a U.S.-led military strike was very unlikely.

“Our assessment hasn’t changed. The threat is low and our preparedness is high,” Mofaz said during a visit Tuesday to the special broadcasting studios set up by the Home Front Command. “What changed was the speech of President Bush early this morning, essentially giving a clear ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and determining a timetable that when this ultimatum expires, the American strike is inevitable.”

The defense minister went on to add that Israelis should not alter their regular routine because of the heightened state of civil defense preparations.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was due to convene security and political consultations to discuss the situation.

The order to prepare sealed rooms came hours before Iraq rejected Bush’s ultimatum. It also came a day after the army formally instructed the public to acquire materials to prepare sealed rooms in their homes.

The army also issued call-up orders for several hundred reservists who serve in the Home Front Command and anti-aircraft units.

The civil preparations, detailed in an instruction booklet distributed by the Home Front Command several weeks ago, included purchasing plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal a room; stocking up on bottled water and canned and dry foods; buying batteries for radios and flashlights in the event of a power outage; and packing a personal bag for each family member in the event of an evacuation due to a nonconventional attack.

The directive was the latest in a series of phased civil defense preparations that have been implemented over the past several months. They included a campaign calling on the population to update their gas mask kits, an information booklet on preparing a sealed room and what to do in the event of attack, and an advisory to stock up on supplies needed to prepare sealed rooms.

The instructions didn’t help an Israeli Arab woman and her two teen-aged sons, who suffocated while sleeping in a sealed room the family had prepared in case of a possible Iraqi attack.

The woman, 37, and her 13- and 14-year-old sons died from lack of oxygen due Sunday night to a coal-run heater they used to warm the room. The father of the family and two smaller children survived.

At the same time, military defensive measures have been implemented, including the deployment in Israel of American Patriot missile batteries to back up Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system, and a raised level of alertness in the Israeli air force.

The latest developments followed months in which Israelis have lived in uncertainty over how the Iraqi crisis will play out.

Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, chosen to serve as a “national commentator” during the conflict, rejected criticism that the army’s gradual approach to preparing the public was confusing.

“The easy decision could have been to” tell the public “to open the masks three months ago,” he said on Israel Radio. “The correct decision has to be taken at the right time.”

As part of the heightened readiness, an Israeli public television channel was to begin broadcasting instructional videos Tuesday on how to prepare a sealed room and how to put on gas masks. Gas mask distribution centers were to be open for extended hours on Wednesday and Thursday.

Israel’s fuel, electricity and water authorities said they were prepared to go on emergency footing, and a situation room was being opened in the infrastructure ministry in Jerusalem.

Despite the heightened civil defense preparations, Education Minister Limor Livnat said after consultations with Mofaz that schools would be open as normal on Thursday, following the Purim holiday. Livnat said the decision was subject to change depending on the security situation.

British Airways announced Tuesday that it would halt all flights to Israel as of Wednesday night, until further notice. The airline said the decision was in line with a revised travel advisory the British Foreign Council issued Monday, urging British citizens in Israel and the Palestinian territories to leave the region immediately.

The army announcement to prepare sealed room did not appear to trigger a rush to buy supplies or change gas mask kits.

Gas mask distribution centers have reported increased activity throughout the Iraqi crisis. The head of the Home Front Command said some 92 percent of Israelis already had refreshed their gas mask kits, Army Radio reported.

There also were no reports of runs on supplies at stores, though the Consumer Council did receive some complaints of alleged price-gauging on sealed-room supplies.

On Monday, before the army order to prepare sealed rooms, shoppers from Ramat Gan, which was hit by Iraqi missiles in 1991, were divided over whether to prepare sealed rooms.

As some shoppers loaded nylon sheeting and special protection kits for pets into their carts, one woman said she was not making any specific preparations.

“After the last war, some said the plastic and tape wouldn’t have helped us anyway,” she told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “So what’s different now?”

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