Israelis afraid of chemical attack by Iraq

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Israeli government has decided that it can no longer play down the danger of chemical and biological weapons being used against Israel by Iraq. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem writes on its measures to protect and reassure the population.

During the Gulf war a guard at the Israeli Defence Ministry was so fixated by fear of poison gas attack that he locked out his own Defence Minister. Moshe Arens, the Defence Minister in question, remembers how he was woken by the wail of air raid sirens at 2am on 18 January 1991, as the first Iraqi Scud missiles exploded in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

When Mr Arens got to the door of the Defence Ministry he found it locked. He says: "The guard, whom I could see through a window in the door, was wearing his gas mask, and had evidently gotten instructions not to open the door for fear of gas entering the bunker."

After pounding vainly on the door for some minutes Mr Arens gave up and went off to find another entrance to his command and control centre.

The anecdote underlines how protective measures against chemical or biological weapons are almost as disabling as the attack itself. Knowing this, Israeli government officials have hitherto minimised the likelihood of Iraq firing Scuds at Israel on the scale of 1991. They add that, even if the warheads contain biological or chemical agents, there are enough gas masks, sealed rooms and antibiotics to keep the population safe.

At first the government said little about how it intended to counter any Iraqi threat. Then Richard Butler, the head of the United Nations team inspecting Iraqi strategic weapons, said last week that Baghdad has enough biological toxins and the means to deliver them to "blow away Tel Aviv". Israelis began to pour into gas mask distribution centres, mainly housed in schools, to pick up new "Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Kits", replacing those distributed in 1991.

Panic is a long way off but there is growing anxiety. "Will it be war?" asked the proprietor of Iwo's delicatessen in Shamai street in Jerusalem. I thought he had said "Will it be warm?" and gave him an unnecessary analysis of weather conditions. Most Israelis do not think anything will happen - unless Iraqi President Saddam Hussein thinks his regime is going to collapse - but believe it best to be on the safe side.

The government has deployed Patriot anti-missile missiles near Arad, not far from the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert, though it denies that they are there because of the present crisis. Their presence is not entirely reassuring because in 1991, when Israel was hit by 39 missiles fired from Iraq's western desert, the Patriots, manned by American crews, failed to bring down a single one.

The problem for Israel is that to equip 5 million people with kits to protect them is a massive job. As people jostled each other in one slowly moving queue for gas masks in Tel Aviv a woman said: "Imagine what would be happening if they were handing out antidotes to anthrax or antibiotics. People standing in line would be murdering each other." A poll shows that 53 per cent of Israelis do not feel properly protected against missile attack.

The government is caught in a bind. It really does believe that the danger of Iraqi attack is minimal. But it does not want to be accused of not doing everything possible. It has asked the US for lethal chemical detectors. It is allocating an extra $69m (pounds 43m) for gas masks. As a psychological threat Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" are already succeeding in disrupting everyday life.