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 strike on Iraq imminent, Israeli upped civil defense preparations while officials repeated the assessment that Israeli involvement in the conflict was very unlikely.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday that there is a “1 percent” risk Israel would be the target of Iraqi retaliation for a U.S. military strike, but that Israel has taken steps to provide the answer to “100 percent of the dangers.”

Sharon made the remarks at a special Cabinet session devoted to Israeli preparedness for the war in Iraq.

Israeli security officials said Wednesday they expected an American-led military offensive in Iraq to begin shortly after the ultimatum issued by President Bush to Saddam Hussein expired early Thursday, Israel time.

In a further sign of increased civil defense measures, the army’s Home Front Command instructed Israelis on Wednesday night to open their gas masks kits to check the fit and to take the kits with them wherever they go.

Political sources said the order was based on the approaching expiration of President Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, and not any new intelligence information, Israel’s Channel One television reported.

A senior Israeli army officer told Army Radio on Wednesday that a U.S. naval radar ship had already anchored in the Mediterranean to assist Israel’s air defenses. The Israel Air Force has raised its level of alert, launching 24-hour sky patrols to intercept any attempt by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to dispatch hostile planes.

At the Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel will stress to the international community that it is not involved in the war with Iraq. Shalom also said Israeli missions abroad should heed the directive that comments on Iraq will be made only by government officials authorized to do so.

Despite the heightened civil and military defense preparations, the head of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, told the meeting that Israel is more concerned about possible terrorist attacks during a war than an Iraqi missile attack.

Sharon said efforts to fight terrorism would continue unhindered.

“It is very likely that there will be attempts to carry out terrorist operations,” Sharon said. “Even in these days, we have no intention of stopping or halting our struggle against terror.”

Terror concerns prompted Israel to extend until Sunday a closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The closure, which was imposed March 15 amid concerns of terrorist attacks over the Purim holiday, originally was set to be lifted on Thursday.

Israeli police went to the top alert level Wednesday. All vacations were canceled and officers were to begin working 12-hour shifts.

On the home front, retailers selling sealed-room supplies reported increased sales. The Home Front Command on Tuesday had ordered the public to prepare sealed rooms for protection against potential chemical or biological attack.

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 civil defense preparations that have been implemented over the past several months. But 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. On Tuesday, the army issued call-up orders for several hundred reservists who serve in the Home Front Command and anti-aircraft units.

Military defensive measures also have been implemented, including the deployment in Israel of American Patriot missile batteries to back up Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system.

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.

Hotels in Eilat, northern Israel, Jerusalem and other areas that are considered less likely targets of possible Iraqi missile attacks reported calls from Israelis eager to claim options reserved several weeks ago or to inquire about space.

Travel agents also reported heightened interest from Israelis about short-term travel abroad, mostly to Europe.

The Dutch airline KLM announced Wednesday that it was cutting back its flights to Israel. This followed the decision of British Airways on Tuesday to suspend flights. German carrier Lufthansa was considering a similar decision.

Israeli’s aviation authority said it expected other foreign carriers to take similar steps once a war begins. Meanwhile, Israeli airlines said they would continue to fly throughout a war, even adding additional flights to meet demand.

For residents of greater Tel Aviv, which was hit by dozens of Iraqi missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the countdown to war in Iraq revived the debate over whether to stay or go.

During the first Gulf war, then-Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat branded residents who fled Iraqi missiles attacks “deserters.”

The issue, while resurfacing, has stirred less controversy this time around.

In a commentary in the daily Ma’ariv on Wednesday, one writer recalled how as the editor of a local Tel Aviv newspaper supplement in 1991, he confronted Lahat and urged Tel Aviv residents to leave the city.

“If someone throws rocks at you, it’s not horrible to duck,” Gal Ochovesky wrote.

He advocated the same policy now.

“Everyone deserves to live,” he wrote. If nothing happens in the current conflict, he said, the cost of leaving would amount to spending some time with the in-laws or reconnecting with friends who live in peripheral areas.

Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, appointed to serve as a “national commentator” during the current conflict, said Wednesday there was no reason for residents of greater Tel Aviv to leave at this stage.

“You can stay at home and continue to work and to continue with your routine,” he said on Army Radio.

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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