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Israelis prepare for war with Iraq

KFAR SAVA, Israel—As Americans ponder the consequences of a U.S. attack on Iraq, people in this hamlet northeast of Tel Aviv seem quite certain where Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will strike back. At Israel.

Many have begun preparing for war, restocking their bomb shelters and getting new gas masks from the government.

The police station armory in Kfar Sava was busy recently as Israelis rushed to trade in their old masks for newer ones. Many of the Israelis there recalled hunkering down in shelters with their masks 11 years ago as Iraqi Scud missiles rained down during the Persian Gulf War.

Iraq sent 39 missiles toward Israel in retaliation for a U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The missiles caused extensive damage, but the Israel Defense Forces said they were directly responsible for only two deaths. And they did not contain any chemical or biological agents.

This time, Israelis worry that Iraq might send poison-tipped missiles their way, and they're hoping that state-of-the-art gas masks will protect them from chemical or biological weapons. For added protection, Israeli gas-mask kits come with syringes filled with atropine, which combats the effects of nerve gas.

The masks don't offer absolute protection, given that chemical and biological agents also penetrate the skin. Improperly worn, the masks also can kill; during the Gulf War, a few Israelis suffocated inside them.

If Saddam is attacked by a U.S.-led coalition, many Israelis fear he may launch an even more lethal barrage than last time.

"If he feels he's lost, he'll do anything," said Susan Feldmann, 56, who went to the armory with her husband, Hugo, 60, to trade in old masks. His mask dated to the 1991 U.S.-led war, dubbed Operation Desert Storm, when Israel first started issuing gas masks to its citizens.

Israel will use its network of Arrow missiles to try to shoot down any incoming Iraqi missiles.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Iraq has old Soviet-made long-range aircraft equipped for suicide missions to Israel. The aircraft would serve as a so-called "dirty bomb" that would spread radioactive contamination over a wide area, Israelis fear.

To prepare for the worst, Israelis have beefed up their already legendary wartime preparedness. Companies that sell everything from canned tuna to window bars to toxic gas-filtration systems report a run on their wares.

Executives of the air and water purification company Tami 4 told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that there has been a 40 percent increase in its air filter sales. A company that produces long-lasting soymilk reported that its sales have jumped nearly a third.

The Health Ministry has stockpiled 12 million doses of vaccine against the smallpox virus, which some fear Iraq may have rescued from near-extinction to use as a biological weapon. The government has begun administering the vaccine to 15,000 health and rescue workers.

Near panic ensued recently when newspapers reported an impending shortage of 600,000 gas masks. The government dismissed those reports as false.

At a security Cabinet meeting this week, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer urged his countrymen not to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

"Regardless of what the U.S. will do to meet this threat, the state of Israeli is well prepared to meet it," he said in a statement issued after the meeting. "Israel has vastly improved the ability to protect its population. No citizen will lack an effective gas mask."

One out of every 10 gas-mask kits will expire by January, but factories have stepped up production of new ones, according to Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shir.

The kits have a shelf life of up to 10 years, and many people have neglected to update them regularly as the government recommends. Citizens receive notices in the mail informing them when they should get new masks, available from local distribution centers.

Orith Shadmon, an optometrist from nearby Ra'anana, picked up five gas masks recently for herself, her husband and their three children.

"They don't worry about this," she said of her children, ages 18, 24 and 26. But Shadmon was taking no chances.

As she loaded shopping bags full of gas-mask boxes into the back of her sport utility vehicle, Shadmon said she also was provisioning her bomb shelter, a standard fixture in an Israeli suburban home.

"In the last war, it was a helpless feeling," she said. This time, "I think it will be the same." She added that she hoped that once again it won't be as bad as Israelis are preparing for.

As Feldmann traded in her old mask, she said getting a new one probably was more of a psychological boost than real protection.

"I don't believe that this helps," she said, holding up the plastic bag containing her mask. "It's just something to hold on to."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): warprep