Israelis were told to keep their gas masks with them at all times as they braced for an Iraqi missile assault Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists has "only a 1 percent" chance of happening.
What has many Israelis worried even more is the possibility of a major terrorist attack in Israel as the American-led military coalition advances toward Baghdad.
"It could come from Palestinian, al-Qaeda or Iraqi agents," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "If I’m worried about anything, it is a mega attack. That is the most nerve-wracking scenario."
Sharon brushed aside the danger of an Iraqi attack, telling his cabinet Wednesday: "Even if we say the [chance] of us being hit is only 1 percent, our precautions address the dangers 100 percent."
Although Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, said he would not rule out the possibility that Iraq still had at least two Scud missiles, the head of Israel’s military intelligence said there was no evidence that they had been deployed in western Iraq.
Matzia Baram, a professor at the University of Haifa and an expert on Iraq, said he only foresees Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein firing a missile at Israel if he "feels he’s finished and he wants to go out with a bang."
"But if he does it at the beginning of the war, he would lose the world support he hopes for … and that he hopes will stop the Americans in their tracks," Baram said. "He needs to present himself as the victim. If he is firing chemical missiles at a country not involved in this war," he defeats that purpose.
Although Sharon dismissed the chances of Iraqi attack, he warned that it is "very likely there will be attempts to carry out terrorist operations."
That concern was shared by Goldie Kraft, 51, a resident of Jerusalem who said that although her "stomach turned over at the thought" of her two grandchildren aged 11/2 and 1 week in protective suits, her biggest concern were local terrorists.
"Yes, I think that Saddam Hussein might target Israel," she said. "But what really worries me is the Arabs living here, around Jerusalem. They might use this opportunity to launch a large-scale terror attack."
Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, pointed out that "Hamas would like to take revenge" for the killing of three of its top leaders in the last few days. Two of them, Ali Alan and Nasser Assida, were said to be responsible for the deaths of 80 civilians and soldiers during the past two years.
"They are definitely planning a mega attack against Israel," Kedar said. "But in the Arab world, revenge could come years after something happens."
Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at UCLA and a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said Hussein would love nothing better than for the world to see pictures of "Americans attacking Iraqis and Israelis attacking Palestinians."
"It is in many ways more in Saddamís interest to have a major terror attack than for him to fire missiles," he said. "He has fewer missiles [than in 1991] and he wants to fire them against the [invading] troops."
Meanwhile, Israeli jet fighters took to the skies to begin round-the-clock patrols to intercept any hostile Iraqi planes, and Israel’s 22,000-member police department was placed on its highest level of alertness. All leaves were canceled and police were placed on rotating 12-hour shifts.
Israeli citizens were told to seal off one room in their home to protect against a chemical or biological attack from Iraq. One government television channel was devoted to a multi-lingual demonstration of how to properly seal a room. Israelis were told also to keep their gas mask at their sides; about 90 percent of Israelís 6.6 million citizens have one.
Avi Grobman, who made aliyah seven years ago from Los Angeles, said he and his wife, Rochel, a former New Yorker, would do whatever it takes to protect their three children, who range in age from 3 years to 3 weeks.
"Yes, we’ll put them in their protective suits," Grobman said, looking at his two older children in their double stroller. "If nothing else, it will make the grandparents back in America feel better. It’s like an insurance policy. You hope to never use it, but it’s there if you need it."
Gas masks were also provided to hotel guests and they were offered for sale to foreign workers, many of whom sought to leave Israel before the start of the war.
Also planning to leave was Sharon Kuper, a venture capital communications and marketing executive, who planned to leave for New York Thursday.
"I’m leaving for the peace of mind of my parents more than my peace of mind," she confided. "I truly believe it’s more dangerous in New York than in Tel Aviv. My ticket is to New York, and my plan is to be in Manhattan with my brother. … Hopefully I’ll have a good time in New York and do some shopping."
Avi Hender, 13, of Jerusalem, dressed as a missile for Purim on Monday, said he doubted Hussein would launch a missile at Jerusalem because "there are so many Arabs here. Jerusalem has the mosque, so we should be the safest of all."
Israelis living in the area of Tel Aviv reportedly have been booking hotels and moving to the homes of friends and relatives in other parts of the country, most notably Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Eilat. The number leaving so concerned Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilead, designated as the government’s point man in calming public fears, that he assured area residents Wednesday that "there is no reason to leave."
As if to emphasize that life will go on normally, government officials stressed that schools would reopen Thursday following the three-day Purim holiday. Because about 30 percent of schools do not have bomb shelters and 20 percent of them are too small, schools also were told to have sealed rooms. The same admonition was directed to medical facilities in the country.
A total of 12,000 IDF reservists were called up, most of whom man the Air Force’s anti-aircraft batteries. The United States has 600 troops manning three of at least eight Patriot anti-missile batteries that have been deployed in the country as a back-up to the Arrow system that is designed to destroy Iraqi Scud missiles at atmospheric levels.
Next to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel and the United States have set up a joint command post that will provide immediate data from hovering satellites on any Iraqi missile launches. The data will be sent at the same time Washington sees it. In the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the American information was relayed to Israel, causing a delayed Israeli response.
Meanwhile, a Lebanese newspaper reported Wednesday that Hezbollah terrorists encamped along the Lebanese-Israeli border had deployed Katyusha rockets fearing that Israel would use the Iraq war as an excuse to destroy the 10,000 missiles it reportedly has in place along the border.
But Spiegel of UCLA said the Syrian-controlled Hezbollah forces are less likely to attack Israel now than they might have been a couple of months ago because "Syria doesnít want to be seen aligned with Iraq."
Kedar of Bar-Ilan University pointed out that Syrian President Bashar Assad had sided with Hussein during meetings of the Arab League and has been strongly opposed to the war to depose him.
"It was reported that Saddam smuggled chemical laboratories into Syria on trucks," Kedar said. "The Americans know about this and they have good reason to suspect that Bashar is on the wrong side of the equation. That is why he will find any reason to appease the U.S. now, especially [by holding back] Hezbollah."
At a Patriot anti-missile site in Jaffa adjacent to Tel Aviv, barbed wire cordoned off the makeshift military base on which the Patriots were located. In the days leading up to war, tourists flocked to the area and took pictures of the American and Israeli guards.
Restaurant owners across the street griped that visitors were taking all of their parking spots and not stopping to eat.
In front of a row of dark green tents, the U.S. flag, the Israeli flag and the sky-blue banner of the Israeli Air Force flapped alongside one another. There are some 300 personnel at the base, about half American and half Israeli, said an Israeli soldier.
Aliza Ben Shimon watched the activity and remarked: "It’s a good feeling that there’s someone else with us, that we’re not alone."
Amram Dahan, a 27-year-old Israeli doing reserve duty at the base, said the American soldiers are in charge of the Patriots, while the Israelis secure the base and escort their guests to buy food at local restaurants.
But not everyone was calmed by the sight of the Patriots. Dina Abu Taleb, a mother of six in the mixed neighborhood of Arabs and Jews, said the military presence is unsettling for children.
"I feel safe, but the kids are scared when they see the shape of the Patriots," she said while friends and family barbecued in a park overlooking the military base. "When I explain to them that the war has begun they start crying."
The war prompted British Airways to suspend all flights Wednesday to and from Tel Aviv; other airlines were expected to follow suit. El Al Airlines, Israel’s national carrier, continued flying but reduced the number of flights because of a 40 percent decline in passenger travel during the first two weeks of March compared to a year ago.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Joshua Mitnick and Michele Chabin are Israel correspondents.