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War in Iraq Fear of Missiles, Quest for Normalcy Compete for Israeli Students’ Minds

March 25, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Clutching one drooling infant to her hip and racing after her toddler, Shirli Shaked noted that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “I went to ‘end of the world’ parties. Now I’m chasing after leaking diapers.”

Standing outside the Thau kindergarten in Tel Aviv, Shaked, who in 1991 had just finished her military duty, said that this time she hadn’t prepared a sealed room or gotten gas masks for her family.

“What’s the point?” she asked. “The chances anything will happen are so small — and besides, I honestly don’t believe” the masks “will help if, God forbid, Scuds begin to fall.”

Inside the kindergarten things were different, as per Education Ministry orders. Cardboard boxes containing the “bubble suit” gas mask used by children rested in neat squares above the children’s boots, coats and assorted blankets.

Kindergarten teacher Ilana Schtibel, whose bun of unruly, dyed-blond hair belied her commanding sense of calm, presided over the 31 kindergartners.

“What is there to be nervous about?” she asked a reporter.

“If something should happen, which it won’t, I have this list of parents prepared to come help, and we’ll move the children to the bomb shelter,” she said, pointing to a squat, triangular concrete structure outside the window.

Israel’s Education Ministry has tried to take every possible precaution, while fostering a sense of calm by urging parents to send their children to school.

The ministry reiterated Sunday that all education facilities would carry on operating as usual, despite the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

At the peak of the Scud missile scare on March 19, hours before the war began, Education Minister Limor Livnat defiantly announced that all Israeli schools would reopen March 20, following the three-day Purim holiday.

Barely half the pupils in the greater Tel Aviv area heeded her call the next day, however. Attendance for kindergartens plummeted by two thirds, and just half of elementary and high school students showed up.

In Haifa, attendance was slightly less than 65 percent.

Sparking the mass abstentions were reports that Israeli schools were under-prepared for war. There was insufficient space in bomb shelters, many of which had been converted to storage facilities, and schools were short of both the plastic sheeting and masking tape needed to seal classrooms.

The result was that many parents were loathe to send their children to school.

Several municipal parents’ associations lambasted the government for opening schools without consulting them.

The superintendent of Israeli elementary schools, Eti Helmer, told JTA in an interview at Tel Aviv’s A.B. Gordon School that the 20 percent still absent “were just extending an already long weekend.” Enrollment would soon be full again, she predicted.

But not everyone shared Helmer’s confidence. As a female classmate ruffled his blue mohawk, Roy, 14, spoke candidly.

“Frankly, this whole thing scares me. The thought of missiles with chemical weapons falling in my backyard is pretty stressful,” he said.

Roy stayed at home late last week, during the peak of the threat. He returned to school this week because he missed his friends, he said, and because “staying at home with my parents was probably more stressful.”

Shiri, a female classmate whose hand was conspicuously interlocked with Roy’s, noted that for her, “an alarm would be the most frightening. That is when the hysteria would start.”

With every hour of the American campaign in western Iraq, the only area from which Iraqi missiles could hit Israel, the likelihood of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel decreases.

Consequently, the emergency instructions issued by the Education Ministry at the start of the American attack have been altered slightly. On Sunday, classes were held in schools with prefabricated structures that are difficult to secure against nonconventional weapons.

For those few residents of Tel Aviv who sought refuge in one of Israel’s southern cities or resort towns, the impetus for flight was not so much the fear of death by Scuds as memories of the panic and trauma of life in sealed rooms in the 1991 war.

Rinat Algom, a Tel Aviv travel agent, was a young mother with two toddlers at the time.

“I had to put my baby in something that most resembled a big plastic bag. I just remember the way she would scream and yell. What must she” — the baby was nine months old at the time — “have felt being stuffed into a plastic bag by this strange creature wearing a gas mask?” she asked.

What was worse, Algom was alone. Her husband was assigned to a special Home Front Command unit that assessed whether incoming Scuds had been armed with nonconventional weapons.

Algom claims that both her children carry emotional scars from the 1991 war that sound almost comical: They have an overwhelming fear of people in masks, especially clowns.

When Algom, a generally unflappable third-generation resident of Tel Aviv, discovered after the war that the protective units for toddlers were unsafe, she decided never to suffer that experience again.

This time she wasn’t taking any chances, Algom said. She booked her family a cottage near the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, and arrived shortly before the first bomb slammed into Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad on the morning of March 20.

According to Algom and other travel agents, hundreds of customers inquired about escaping southward. In fact, the Tourism Ministry recorded a boost of about 15 percent in domestic bookings — but it was nothing like the exodus that some had predicted.

Back in the Thau kindergarten, Schtibel pulled from a trash bin a two-page folder that she had drafted for the children when the war began.

“I remember another man who tried to kill us,” one kindergartner had written inside. “It was Haman the terrible, but he also failed.”

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