Jerusalem — American students at Israeli universities will get gas masks if a state of emergency is declared, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai told The Jewish Week after giving similar assurances to the president of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
Mordechai made his comments during a visit to the campus Tuesday to speak to an Israel Bonds rabbinic mission. He told the 88 rabbis that although United Nations weapons inspectors had “destroyed a large part of Iraq’s ability to produce nonconventional weapons and missiles,” their work was not finished.
“We are sure there are places King [Saddam] Hussein can store some of the arms,” he said. “We are sure he has some launchers for Scud missiles — maybe 2,4,5, maybe a little bit more. And he still has missiles that can cover some countries [in the area]. … There is no question that [Saddam] has biological weapons and he knows exactly where they are. The U.S. will continue to make sure that [UN weapons inspectors] can go back and search every inch of Iraq to make sure there are no hidden weapons and missiles.”
In a meeting last month with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, had said he did not believe Iraq had any Scuds left but said there were missiles and chemical and biological weapons that were unaccounted for. In the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, which did not retaliate.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israel Bonds delegation that Israel had the absolute right of self-defense and that the country was preparing its civil defense, health services and police in the event of an Iraqi strike.
He added, however, that “our assessment is that the chances of an attack are low, even very low.”
“It is a Middle East populated by ballistic missiles and other weapons and we don’t have to be helpless against them,” he said. “We can take steps to protect ourselves … [and exercise] Israel’s right of self-defense.”
Mordechai said he had met with U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen in Munich on Sunday and came away convinced the U.S. was committed to using all of its political muscle to convince Iraq to allow UN weapons inspectors to do their job.
“I’m sure that if Saddam Hussein continues to refuse to do what is necessary, the U.S. will use its power to force Saddam Hussein to follow the UN decision,” he said. “For us, it’s a very difficult situation. We are not part of the conflict … but no one can really understand what he [Hussein] can do and how he can react when he is under heavy attack from the U.S. We must prepare, equip and be able to defend our state.
“I’m sure we have enough equipment for all our people in Israel. And even if some people feel we are short, we will end [the shortage] in a short time. If anything happens here, I’m sure we will defend our people.”
Israeli authorities said on Tuesday that the country lacked gas masks for about 25 percent of children under the age of 8. They asked families with such masks that they no longer need to turn them in immediately, and said the shortage would be made up by importing masks from overseas.
Before Mordechai addressed the rabbis, he met privately with the university president, Professor Moshe Kaveh, who reiterated the university’s request for gas masks in the event of an Iraqi attack. A university spokesman said Mordechai replied that the masks would be provided when they were necessary and suggested that to distribute them now would cause unnecessary panic.
Later, in an interview with The Jewish Week, Mordechai tried to assure the parents of students here that there would be enough gas masks for all students.
“They will get them [when they need them],” he said.
Meanwhile, there were reports that at least one gas mask distribution center had closed after running out of masks. And the country’s sole manufacturer of the masks, Shalon Chemical Industries, has told tourists it has been barred by Israeli authorities from selling masks to tourists until it fills all government contracts for masks.
Even as authorities opened more distribution centers this week to reduce the long lines of Israelis waiting for masks, residents of Tel Aviv appeared more edgy than those in Jerusalem about a possible Iraqi attack. Tel Aviv was the only Israeli city struck by Iraqi missiles in 1991 and some residents spoke of leaving the city should a U.S.-led attack on Iraq begin.
Some American students are making plans to leave the country if war breaks out, according to Michal Lamm, a student adviser at Machon Gold, a girl’s yeshiva in Jerusalem.
“They are all staying for now,” she said. “If there would be a war, they would leave. They are all talking about it.”
A spokesperson at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem said the university was closed for vacation but that no student had informed the Rothberg School for Overseas Students of any intention of returning home. She noted that the ulpan program began just a few days ago for spring semester students and that no students had canceled.
“In the case of an attack on Israel, the IDF has guaranteed the supply of gas masks for every student,” she said. The school has 1,500 students.
In another development, the Palestinian Authority, which had staged several demonstrations in the West Bank in support of Iraq — even burning Israeli and American flags and hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers — reportedly has decided to curb such marches after strong protests from Israel and the United States. But on Tuesday, Druse on the Golan Heights demonstrated in support of Iraq after Syria announced its tacit support for Iraq. Syria had been part of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 1991.
Meanwhile, tourism in Israel, which has been hurt by the faltering peace process, has been hurt further by the talk of war with Iraq. Members of a tour group that arrived last week said that half of their group had canceled their trip.
Minister of Tourism Moshe Katsav told the Israel Bonds rabbinic mission that Israel has been through more difficult periods in its five decades of existence and that it is fully behind the Clinton administration in its stance against Hussein.
“We know the American Congress and the American people stand behind it and the Jewish people are behind it,” said Katsav. “Someone must stop [Saddam] and the only power that could stop such a madman is our ally, the biggest power in the world — God bless America.”