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First Person As War with Iraq Looms, Schools Prep Israeli Students for Emergency

January 29, 2003
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Normally, my daughter’s friend Hilla says, her 11th-grade social relations class at Herzliya’s Yovel High School focuses on familiar adolescent topics: interpersonal problems, difficulties with exams, the dangers of drinking and driving.

But this winter her class spends its time poring over a hastily distributed text from the Education Ministry, starkly titled “The Threat.”

Almost a century after soldiers’ lungs were burned out by mustard gas in World War I, Hilla and her classmates can tick off the characteristics of nonconventional warfare: possibilities of advance preparation, widespread damage to living organisms, long-term harm to the environment, severe psychological ramifications.

As I drive the girls, I hear Hilla, 17, talking to my daughter in the back seat.

“Today the soldiers came to our class and showed us how to inject ourselves with atropine in case of a gas attack,” she says.

“How do you know when to do it?” my daughter asks.

“I guess when they tell you to on the radio,” Hilla says.

“You mean you have to give yourself an injection?” My daughter is aghast.

“Well, I guess my mom or dad could give it to me and my little brother,” Hilla answers. “And I told my mother to buy talc. That’s what they said we should spread on our skin to soak up chemicals so they don’t get absorbed.”

Later, Hilla’s mother and I exchange macabre jokes: “I have some perfumed powder with a furry puff I once got as a gift. Do you think that will be good enough to ward off poison chemicals?”

For Israeli students, chemical and biological weapons are not theoretical subjects like trigonometry or physics: They know the horrors spelled out in “The Threat” may spill over into their own lives.

Instead of buckling down for the second semester, Israeli schools must focus on a wild card variable: what to do if war breaks out with Iraq and Israel becomes the target of a non-conventional attack?

The situation in the school system mirrors that of Israeli society at large: confusion, conflicting opinions and assessments alternating between assurances and dire warnings.

Education Minister Limor Livnat has declared that the school system is preparing for all eventualities, but she conceded that not all schools have access to bomb shelters, and in case of war may close down or operate on shifts as they did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Zevulun Orlev, chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee, put it more strongly: “There isn’t a single school that is ready” for an attack, he said, raising fears that shelters at some schools might become “death traps.”

School security is uncentralized, with each municipality or school administration having responsibility. Acknowledging the gaps in preparedness, the Ministry of Education plans to move studies into protected locations such as community centers if necessary.

Soldiers are visiting 3,000 schools nationwide this month to familiarize pupils with emergency preparedness. Though the population at large has a collective memory of the Gulf War, these children were either toddlers or not yet born in 1991.

One of their strongest anxieties is what will become of their pets. Why can’t dogs wear gas masks, too, they want to know.

Every educational institution in Israel has received a booklet published in November 2002 by the Education Ministry. The booklet outlines preparations for emergency situations, from forming teams for 10 classrooms to procedures for entering shelters.

Emergency situations are listed as war with one or all neighboring countries, missile attacks by Iraq, Iran or Syria, short-range missile attacks, gunfire in or around school — and such natural disasters like earthquake or fire.

In addition, schools have received CDs with recommended activities in a state of emergency, either in school shelters during an attack or in other places if schools have been closed. These include games and group activities that can be performed in a shelter, and how students can discuss current events to occupy their time.

There is a separate section detailing activities that will help youngsters express their feelings and apprehensions in time of crisis, as well as a list of games and artwork for small groups.

The Education Ministry plans a conference for the country’s psychological counseling staff on how to prepare students for global events.

Near Yovel, the American International School in Israel is preparing in its own way. The 500 students at this K-12 private school include children of diplomats and foreign businessmen living in Israel. About 10 percent of the students are Israeli.

War preparedness is top priority at the American School. Parents were invited to hear a briefing from the superintendent on dismissal procedures, security updates and projections of how studies might be conducted in case of war.

Most of the non-Israeli students may leave the country if war breaks out, so the American School is emphasizing distance learning. Through an electronic educational system called Blackboard, students can get assignments, hand them in and get them back corrected, all via the Internet.

To familiarize themselves, students have been receiving routine assignments using Blackboard. Younger students’ parents also are expected to learn the system.

The American School’s approach was born of experience: It closed temporarily during the 1991 Gulf War, in response to the mass exodus of its student body.

This time things will be different, the school’s superintendent, Robert Sills, vows. He is adamant that the school will stay open to serve the significant number of students expected to weather the storm in Israel.

The American School is equipped with bomb shelters for students and staff, and loudspeakers periodically announce emergency drills.

“Do you feel nervous during the drills?” I ask my daughter.

“No,” she answers, “they’re just boring.”

She and her friends have become as nonchalant about bomb shelter practice as they were about fire drills in simpler days.

In the nearby public schools, though, her friends don’t have bomb drills.

“I’m not even sure where the shelters are,” Hilla says. “Anyway, most people in my class say that if war comes they will go to relatives in Jerusalem, or down to the Negev, or even to Europe.”

I recall that as a member of the parent’s association during the Gulf War, I volunteered one morning to help tape up the windows of the Herzliya public high school my older daughter was attending. The tape was supposed to protect against gas leaking in.

It was a ludicrous task: Most of the windows didn’t close properly, and many lacked glass panes. Taping up the gaping holes was an exercise in futility.

For students in Israel this winter, tentativeness is again the name of the game.

The school play? The hockey marathon? The French midterm? Everybody plans for them as if nothing is out of the ordinary. But who knows how the world will be when the sophomore dance rolls around?

For years after the Gulf War, families had rolls and rolls of unused masking tape they had nervously purchased during the hostilities. This time, in addition to tape, maybe they will have stocks of talc to help absorb chemicals on the skin their teen-agers learned about in school.

Much as they joke about it, the students hope that the seals on the talc containers stay intact.

Helen Schary Motro, an American attorney and writer living in Israel, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School. E-Mail:

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