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S P E C I A L: The Standoff with Iraq

Israel tries to calm nervous public over attack threat

Mothers/line for gas masks
Israeli mothers wait in line for gas masks  
In this story: February 3, 1998
Web posted at: 6:35 p.m. EST (2335 GMT)

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israeli officials on Tuesday began outlining preparations for an Iraqi attack while downplaying to a panicky public the dangers of a chemical weapons strike.

The government, accused in the media of keeping Israelis in the dark about the level of threat in the crisis, paraded a phalanx of generals before microphones to administer what Israel Radio called a "multiple dose of tranquilizers" to the citizenry.

"We assess that the chance of an attack by Iraq against Israel is extremely small," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But he said Israel, out of a "sense of responsibility," was preparing for the possibility of Iraqi strikes and was more ready than any other country "to protect its citizens on the home front."

'No reason for panic'

"There is no reason for panic, not in Israel and not elsewhere," said army chief Amnon Shahak.

"We have no war (with Iraq), and if fighting erupts it will probably be between the Americans and the Iraqis," he told reporters.

Iraqi U.N. ambassador Nizar Hamdoon said Tuesday his country did not have the missiles or other weapons to launch an attack on Israel.

He was answering a question from a listener in Israel, during an interview with CNN, about "concerns that Iraq will attack Israel."

"Iraq has not made such announcements," Hamdoon replied. "Iraq has no capacity of any long-range missiles or any other biological or chemical weapons. All have been destroyed."

Israel has set up batteries of Patriot missiles in its southern Negev Desert.

Hospitals conduct emergency exercises

Haaretz, a daily, reported that Israel had asked for hundreds of detectors that identify and locate chemical weapons. The hand-held device detects how wide an area is contaminated and determines the center of chemical concentration.

Argument at gas mask distribution center
Confusion ensued at the gas mask distribution center when citizens lacked proper papers  

Israel has asked to buy millions of doses of antidote to the weapons from the United States, said an Israeli government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some hospitals conducted emergency exercises, and pharmaceutical manufacturers worked around the clock to produce antibiotics to counter the effects of infectious disease.

The danger of an attack and how Israel would respond to it is a hot topic throughout the country.

The threat of an attack has dominated the media in Israel with lurid descriptions of what might be in store -- after chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler was quoted last week as saying that Iraq had the capability of wiping out Tel Aviv with biological weapons.

$69 million for gas masks

The Yediot Ahronot and Maariv dailies ran front-page photos on Monday of a bottled antidote to anthrax.

Readers were told where to buy white anti-germ "space suits" and told that antibiotics could counter the infectious disease, which could be spread by a hit from a missile tipped with a biological weapon containing its spores.

The Knesset, responding to the thousands of Israelis lining up at gas mask distribution centers, budgeted an extra $69 million for gas masks and other emergency supplies. The funding will cover the distribution of masks to the thousands of international workers in Israel and Israeli citizens, Knesset finance committee member Meir Shetreet said.

Maj. Gen. Gabi Ophir, head of Israel's civil defense administration, said the combination of sealed rooms and gas masks -- if kept up-to-date -- provided protection against both chemical and biological weapons.

"Someone in a sealed room or shelter, wearing a gas mask, is 1,000 times better protected than someone who is not," Ophir said Tuesday. And that protection would be supplemented by medical antidotes, he said, adding that Israel's early warning system had been improved since the '91 Gulf War.

Labor leader: Iraq has few missiles

During that war, most Israelis were given gas masks after Hussein threatened to attack Israel with chemical weapons. Iraq fired 39 missiles at the Jewish state. All carried conventional warheads.

Israel held its fire then in the face of U.S. pressure not to take action, which the United States feared would push Arab states out of a U.S.-led alliance to drive the Iraqi army from Kuwait.

Israeli officials say the current threat is overblown.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai insisted that "the probability of a threat from Iraq today is very low."

"There is enough time to make the necessary preparations if they are needed," he said on Israel Radio. "The wave of media attempts to cause alarm is superfluous and exaggerated."

And Ehud Barak, Israel's Labor Party leader and a former general, said Hussein is toothless. He believes Iraq has, at most, two to five launchers and one or two dozen missiles.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report


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