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Israelis resigned to coming war with Iraq

TEL AVIV, Israel—Serving drinks at a chic nightspot near the Mediterranean Sea, bartender Guy Gisser said he had no plans to seal up a special chemical attack-proof room at his home. He hasn't bothered to upgrade his old Israeli-issue gas mask, either.

The native Israeli plans to keep working at the Baghdad Bar, open until 5 a.m., even if sirens wail and Iraqi Scud missiles slam into this coastal city, as they did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"Destiny will come to you," said Gisser, 25, offering a shrug and morbid survival strategy. "We will just have a drink, smoke a cigarette and hope that will kill the Ebola and the mustard gas."

Many other Israelis, however, are updating their gas masks and stocking water and food in special sealed rooms in case Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sends chemical or bacteriological weapons their way on Scud missiles.

But mostly they are answering the steady, distant drumbeat toward war with a been-there, done-that brand of Israeli bravado, a blend of defiance and resignation leavened with gallows humor.

With their archenemy Iraq on a collision course with their arch-ally in Washington, Israelis say, there is little to do but wait and see whether the Jewish nation once again becomes a sideshow in the battle between Saddam and a president named George Bush, Round 2.

"I don't care about the war, and I don't think anything will happen," said fellow Baghdad Bar worker Meital Beletz, 24, with a giggle, reporting that she, too, hadn't bothered to seal a room.

Practically in the next breath, she said she had seen Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations this week and believed Iraq had hidden weapons of mass destruction. So, "if the United States is going to attack, something is for sure going to happen here. It did last time."

Two Israelis were killed and about 200 more were wounded in about 40 missile strikes in 1991. Another dozen were asphyxiated by their gas masks or died of heart attacks.

Across town and a social class removed from the trendy bar, Hatoun Abudi, 74, who was born in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, offered a similarly sobering appraisal from her four-room cement home in the Hatikvah quarter, a poor neighborhood that was Israel's Ground Zero in the last Gulf War.

"I upgraded gas masks. But other than that, we're trusting in God," she said.

In 1991, shrapnel and the blast of an Iraqi missile 100 yards away brought down her roof on a Sabbath morning at 7 a.m. Luckily, she had just stepped outside to scan the sky when the air-raid siren went off.

"A sealed room doesn't help if the roof isn't good," she sighed. "God is better."

Her son Elan, 51, confided that his mother is anxious. She had already stashed a huge bag of rice and bottled water for a long siege. But he planned to move her to a brother's home near Jerusalem, considered safe because, they believe, even Saddam wouldn't dare bomb the city that's holy to Muslims as well as Christians and Jews.

Did the Abudis see any silver lining in the coming of war?

If the American campaign succeeds in imposing Western-style democracy on Iraq, mother and son said separately, they imagined the day when they would buy round-trip air tickets to Baghdad and go as tourists to the homeland they fled in the Jewish exile of 1961 and 1962.

Israeli newscasts offer a stream of Iraq war updates—reports of generals' predictions; of sold-out reservations in Jerusalem and Eilat, Israel's southernmost resort city; calls on citizens to stockpile supplies—wedged between bleak economic reports and the latest bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza.

But by many appearances, life seems unchanged.

Under orders from the army, Israelis are not yet carrying their brown shoebox-sized gas mask cases; they've been told to leave them and their antidote syringes at home. And there are no lines yet at the military's gas mask centers, where mostly recent immigrants and parents of children born since the last war seem to be showing up for supplies.

Lifelong Tel Aviv resident Amalyia Abu Rabiah, 40, a Bedouin woman who cleans homes, whisked through the process and emerged in minutes with five masks—two tent-like hoods for her 3-year-old twins, more traditional black rubber models for her teenagers.

Last time, "I didn't do anything," she said. "But this time, they're saying, `Take. Take. Take.' So we took."

A recently discharged soldier, Talia, 20, said that when air-raid sirens wailed, her family would retreat to an underground bunker in their old apartment block, built before 1990s codes required that each new unit in Israel have a sealed room.

Flushed and gasping for air, she had just checked the seal on her mask at a North Tel Aviv distribution center set up in a huge funeral hall. She said it brought back memories of the breathlessness she felt using a mask for the first time at age 9.

The coming war has, in fact, conjured up mixed memories. Gisser recalled that, for a 12-year-old, the first Gulf War had a snow-day sort of excitement. Schools were closed, and TV offered extra cartoons as diversion.

Other Israelis recalled the terror of not knowing whether the Scuds were simply huge missiles or had wicked chemicals packed into them.

Talia offered a quick "not really," then a soft "yes, just a little bit," on whether she feared the coming war.

Her father, Hanitai, 64, said Saddam surely had hidden awful weapons from the world, but he predicted that Iraq would have little chance to use them in the coming U.S. firestorm.

For the record, he was asked, how many Israeli wars had he seen?

"All of them," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.