TEL AVIV, Israel—With an American war on Iraq appearing inevitable, Israelis on Wednesday went into just-in-case mode.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held an emergency pre-war Cabinet meeting, telling Israelis the nation was not a party to the coming Gulf War. "Hopefully, this period will pass quietly, and the campaign being led by the U.S. will be short and successful," he said.
Just in case, the military ordered all Israelis to try on and then carry their gas masks everywhere around-the-clock—to work, shopping, sporting events, even to school if it resumes Thursday after a recess for Purim, a three-day holiday celebrating the salvation of Jews in ancient Persia.
Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi, Israel's intelligence chief, said Wednesday that Baghdad had no long-range missile launchers in Western Iraq, from where Iraq in 1991 sent about 40 Scuds into the Jewish state, mostly in and around this seaside city.
Just in case, however, Israelis streamed away from Tel Aviv—in cars to Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea and on extra commuter flights to Israel's southernmost resort city, Eilat.
"To tell you the truth, my son is afraid," said Sophia Bitton, 44, while she waited for a quick air hop to a hotel room she reserved that morning at Eilat.
"I decided to leave rather than be in a situation like before: the noise of the sirens and the booms of the Scuds were terrible."
Sharon said three times in the space of a brief opening statement to his Cabinet that "the chance Israel will be hit is very small."
Just in case, though, Israel mobilized the last of 12,000 military reservists, who specialize in the Arrow and Patriot antimissile, antiaircraft batteries arrayed across the nation, as well as the civil defense wing's chemical and biological detection and cleanup crews.
In Jerusalem, citizens took time out from sealing special rooms against poison gas to celebrate a last day of the Purim holiday, more than a few of them sporting red fezzes as they strolled the streets in costumes between parties and staging farcical skits, a popular holiday pastime.
Jews and Arabs alike consider Jerusalem the safest heavily populated spot in Israel, with shrines holy not only to Judaism and Christianity but also to Islam, so heavy traffic streamed Wednesday up to the ancient hilltop city from Tel Aviv.
In the other direction, rescue and emergency vehicles plainly marked with a red Star of David streamed to Tel Aviv along with journalists in advance of the coming war. Just in case.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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