Israelis Brace For Fallout Of Attack by U.S. on Iraq
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 23, 2002; Page A01
JERUSALEM, Aug. 22 -- An estimated 15,000 Israeli emergency and health workers are receiving vaccinations against smallpox. Thousands of families are lining up at neighborhood distribution centers to stock up on gas masks. And the military is scrambling to expand a new missile defense system.
In this terrorism-weary country, every headline from the United States forecasting an attack on Iraq brings a wave of anxiety about a smorgasbord of potential threats. The dangers Israelis see include missiles delivering destruction and deadly diseases, nuclear annihilation, or perhaps death by nerve agents.
"We are trying to do the impossible," said Boaz Lev, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health. "We decided to prepare ourselves for every possible situation."
Lev said hospitals and emergency preparedness teams are practicing drills covering a long menu of potential disasters, including a conventional missile assault, chemical and biological attacks and nuclear catastrophe. This in a country that already has been engaged in nearly two years of violence and terrorism in the Palestinian uprising.
Adding to the angst is the warning from the country's leadership that, unlike in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Israel will not refrain from launching its own attack against Iraq if President Saddam Hussein unleashes missiles or other weapons against Israel.
"We will be one of the main targets," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in a recent interview with the mass circulation daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. "What I told the Americans, and I repeat it: 'Don't expect us to continue to live with the process of restraint. If they hit us, we reserve the right of response.' "
During the Gulf War, the United States pressured Israel to remain out of the fight, even though Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel, for fear of losing the support of Arab allies in the military coalition against Iraq. But Israeli officials say that rationale does not apply this time because the United States is unlikely to line up an Arab coalition for an attack against Iraq.
"I don't think America will ask us to hold our fire this time," said a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "America understands there is no real need for a wall-to-wall coalition because it will never have the support of the Arab world for an attack on Iraq."
In recent weeks, as rhetoric from Washington has intensified, virtually every medical and security decision about how to brace Israel for a potential defense against Iraq has become embroiled in emotional political debate. On Wednesday, the Israeli security cabinet decided to vaccinate about 15,000 emergency workers against smallpox, a disease that the World Health Organization determined had been eradicated by the start of the 1980s. Now some scientists say Iraq may have the ability to resurrect the disease, which is extremely contagious and can kill up to one-third of the people it infects.
But with that decision came a vitriolic debate among politicians and medical experts that ended in the resignation of the Health Ministry's top epidemiological adviser. He was enraged that the ministry did not accept his task force's recommendation to inoculate the entire Israeli population.
"This is a tricky thing, trying to explain why you are doing this or why you haven't done that," Lev said.
At the moment, Lev said, much of the fear over smallpox is hypothetical. He added, however, that when the ministry determines there is even "a very minimal threat, then the right thing to do is immunize everybody."
Lev and other medical experts warn that the vaccinations can have dangerous side effects. Among the 15,000 people being vaccinated, several could be expected to die and hundreds could become ill. "Every such thing has its price," Lev said.
During the Gulf War, Iraq did not arm its missiles with chemical or biological agents, as the Israeli and U.S. militaries had feared. But millions of Israelis were outfitted with protective masks. Of the 74 Israelis who died during the missile attacks, only two were killed by Scuds. Four suffocated from improper use of their gas masks, and 68 died from heart failure or heart attacks attributed to war-related stress, according to the National Insurance Institute.
As the talk of an attack against Iraq has escalated in recent weeks, the 30 distribution centers across the country have been fielding about 5,000 requests a day for new masks, known here as Atomic, Biological and Chemical Protection Kits, or trade-ins on kits that have expired since they were issued for the Gulf War.
Newspaper headlines and television reports have carried scare stories warning of Iraq's possible unleashing of everything from nerve gas to anthrax and the Ebola virus.
"War is very close, I can feel it," said Tami Haver, 31, a piano teacher who joined a short line of citizens at the military's Home Front Command distribution center at Jerusalem's upscale Malha Mall. "It will be more serious than it was the last time. . . . I hope that the gas mask will help. I rely on it. Okay, not 100 percent, but I do rely on it. I have to."
Nadav Caspi, an unemployed accountant waiting in the same line with his wife and 4-month-old daughter, was far more skeptical.
"This whole gas mask thing is like giving aspirin to somebody who is suffering from a terminal disease," said Caspi, adding that he was getting new masks only at the urging of his wife. "In the army we get a full body suit. These [chemical] agents don't just enter through breathing, but through the skin, and these masks won't help at all. They just make people feel better."
The Israeli government is also planning to add iodine capsules to mask kits now in production as a potential antidote to fallout from radioactive weapons. The pills are intended to minimize reaction to radioactive fallout by boosting the capabilities of the thyroid gland.
Meanwhile, the military is making its own preparations, honing a new, high-technology antimissile battery in the center of the country. The Arrow-2 system, which Israel is developing with the United States, has been deployed for about three years in the southern Negev desert, according to military officials.
But even that program has encountered controversy. The system recently was put into operation about six miles from the central Israeli town of Hadera, despite protests from some residents fearful that the system's early warning and fire control radar could pose a health hazard.