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Israelis celebrate Purim, prepare for war

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israelis celebrating a carnival-like Jewish festival started sealing off rooms against poison gas attack Tuesday, the latest phase of a calibrated civil defense plan to prepare for the worst without raising alarm over the looming Persian Gulf war.

"I'm not afraid, but my wife and my children are," reported security guard Avi Rosenberg, 48, as he plunked down the equivalent of $9 for about 30 feet of nylon sheeting at a downtown hardware store. "I'm doing what they tell me to do—I don't want to die."

He didn't bother to buy tape to affix the plastic to his apartment windows, he said, because he had six leftover rolls from the 1991 Gulf War, the last time Israel engaged in the sealed-room exercise. Then, Iraq fired about 40 Scud missiles, none with chemical or biological agents.

There was no sense of panic in the city Tuesday, ground zero for Iraqi attacks in 1991. Tel Aviv had a lazy, day-off atmosphere as schools and businesses were mostly closed for the centuries-old Jewish holiday of Purim. Based on an ancient drama, the holiday commemorates how a queen named Esther saved the Jews of Persia from destruction by revealing her secret to her husband, the mighty King Ahasuerus—she, too, was a Jewess.

So downtown Tel Aviv Tuesday offered a surreal juxtaposition of images—children parading in the streets dressed up as kings and queens, action figures and fairies—while parents heeded a military announcement to gather last-minute supplies of bottled water, plastic sheeting and rolls of tape.

"This is a happy holiday. People should be celebrating it," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman. "Yet they should have a sealed room at home too, should anything happen."

Israeli political and military leaders have engaged in a delicate balancing act over the coming war.

Military intelligence analysts have deemed it highly unlikely that Baghdad would or could use any weapons of mass destruction in the early days of a U.S. attack on Iraq—to avoid galvanizing world support for the United States. Later, according to Israel's military assessment, U.S. strikes should erode any remaining Iraqi capacity, even if Saddam Hussein orders an 11th-hour strike at the Jewish state.

Still, Israeli leaders have prepared for the war for months—first renewing gas masks and antidote injectors, then telling people to stash supplies while stealthily mobilizing reserve specialists from anti-missile and nerve-agent detection units.

Tuesday, the military raised the alert a notch higher. It told Israelis living in older homes and apartments to use tape and plastic wrap to seal off a room against nerve agents and other gases. Construction codes since 1992 required new homes be built with special gas-proof rooms.

The military also began around-the-clock broadcasts, in five languages, of instructional videos on a special civil defense television channel.

"Something is going to happen, but it's going to be minimal," predicted waitress Sharon Pittel, 27, serving espresso in a city cafe in her self-styled Purim costume—a rococo rhinestone tiara topping spray-painted, fire-engine red hair.

She was so confident, she said, that she had never bothered to get a government-issue gas mask—unlike the estimated 92 percent of the population that received or renewed survival kits.

"My general feeling is, if we are told to be ready, to prepare all the necessary measures, it's the least we can do," said Mordechai Dunetz, 80, showing how he had already hung, but not yet sealed off, plastic wrap over his Jerusalem apartment's bedroom window.

Shopkeepers in Arab East Jerusalem noted an uptick in sales, as residents bought extra supplies of rice, oil and other everyday food items, while several international airline carriers announced plans to suspend flights starting Wednesday or Thursday to and from Ben-Gurion International Airport.

In the West Bank and Gaza, meantime, there was no sign that looming war was curbing Arab-Israeli violence: Israeli army troops killed two militant Hamas gunmen in separate operations in villages near Bethlehem and Nablus—and lost a 27-year-old reserve soldier in one of the gunbattles.


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