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Israeli children head off to school with gas masks in hand

YAVNE, Israel—When he was asked what he learned in school on Thursday, Tal Sahar, 8, offered a shrug and a classic second-grader's reply—"Nothing."

"Oh, if they shoot missiles, I have to put it on," he added, gesturing to the new 13-by-9-inch cardboard carton he carried to and from class in this bedroom community of Tel Aviv.

Toting their gas masks like lunchboxes, a new pint-sized generation of Israelis woke up to their first Middle Eastern war and about half went to school Thursday—reflecting a blend of Israeli unease and bravado on the opening day of the American war to topple Saddam Hussein.

Israel Radio reported that only 50 percent of students went to school in the Gush Dan region along the Mediterranean a day after some citizens fled the country's populous core near Tel Aviv for high ground in Jerusalem, the Negev Desert and Eilat on the Red Sea.

It also reported that 12 edgy or playful citizens, including a 4-year-old, accidentally jabbed themselves with special injectors containing nerve-gas antidotes that came with their government-issue survival kits. Israel's Home Front Command instructed citizens to open the kits and read the enclosed instructions Wednesday evening. None of the 12 died, but some required medical treatment.

Many citizens, parents and children alike, heeded Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's appeal to carry on life as normal. "We estimate, believe and hope that we will not be involved with the war," Sharon said in a national address. "However, if, heaven forbid, we are dragged into it, the state of Israel is prepared to deal with any possible threat, from both a defensive and offensive perspective."

Israeli military intelligence officials have predicted for weeks that Iraq cannot or will not send Scud missiles slamming into Israel, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War.

"Friends of ours are scared to leave their children. But we thought they would be better off as a collective in the classroom," said Gil Arusi, 37, collecting his son Jonathan, 6, from school.

At nearby Palmachim Air Base, Brig. Gen.Yair Dori, chief of air defense operations, expressed hope that the base's U.S.-funded, Israeli-invented $2 billion Arrow anti-missile project would destroy any Scud that Saddam might send this way.

In Yavne,—a tidy, comfortable community of 33,000 Israelis popular with pilots and policemen, army officers and businessmen—many had no doubt it would. Engineer Itzhik Kamari, 44, said he believed "100 percent" in the Arrow system "because we made it."

His son Nadav, 8{, offered a different explanation for his sense of serenity: "The Americans have the strongest army in the world, and Yavne isn't a big city." Israel has more populous areas, he said, that would be more likely Iraqi targets.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+israel