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Profile: Israeli Preparation Against a Possible Iraqi Attack With Biological Weapons

Morning Edition: August 26, 2002

Israel Preps for U.S. Attack on Iraq


The Israeli government is stepping up preparations against a possible Iraqi attack on the Jewish state. The government has decided to inoculate 15,000 emergency workers against smallpox. Gas mask kits that already are being distributed to Israelis will now start including iodine tablets to combat radiation poison. And nearly 12 years after the Gulf War, press reports are again filled with doomsday scenarios of an Iraqi non-conventional attack on Israel. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


In a basement corner of Jerusalem's largest mall, the Israeli army has set up a gas-mask distribution center. In a dingy waiting room, a television screens a film on how to use the gas masks.


GRADSTEIN: `The syringe is not a toy,' the announcer says, referring to a syringe of atropine to be used in the case of a nerve gas attack. `You may have to help children or adults who have been affected and cannot inject themselves,' he continues.

Twenty-three-year-old Dufna Katan(ph) sits on a white, plastic chair waiting to be called inside to exchange her decade-old gas mask for a new one.

Ms. DUFNA KATAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `I'm not scared, but it does shake my confidence,' she says. `Iraq has already attacked Israel once, and it could happen again. In 10 years, Saddam Hussein could have developed a lot of new weapons.'

During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, all with conventional warheads. Two Israelis were killed by the Scuds; several dozen others died from heart attacks during the Iraqi assault. Israel did not respond then, but this time, Israeli officials say, it will be different. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently said he told the Bush administration that if Iraq attacks Israel, Israel, quote, "reserves the right of response."

Professor Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst at Bar-Ilan University, says last time Israel held back in order not to endanger the international coalition against Iraq, which included moderate Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia. This time, he says, there is no coalition.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Bar-Ilan University): It's very difficult for me to imagine any kind of Iraqi attack on Israel, any significant attack, where there would not be an Israeli response, largely because Israel sat out the war in 1991, and that seemed to have been, at best, a one-shot deal, but having generally negative consequences in terms of Israel's image and deterrence capability.

GRADSTEIN: Something else that's changed is the type of attack expected. Before the 1991 Gulf War, many Israelis feared a chemical weapons attack. In addition to receiving gas masks, Israelis were told to prepare a sealed room to ride out the missile attacks. This time around, says Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the fear is more of an Iraq biological attack.

Mr. DORE GOLD (Sharon Senior Adviser): We also know that they imported into Iraq large amounts of biological materials for--particularly, growth medium for producing vast amounts of biological weapons. And biological weapons are a global threat. They begin in one part of the Middle East, and they can spread everywhere.

GRADSTEIN: The decision to vaccinate emergency workers against smallpox sparked a national debate about whether the entire Israeli public should be vaccinated. The Israeli Health Ministry's top epidemiological adviser resigned in protest over the decision not to vaccinate everyone. Gerald Steinberg says the threat of a non-conventional Iraqi attack is frightening for the Israeli public.

Prof. STEINBERG: The fears that were there in '91 of chemical attacks had been magnified. We also know a lot more now about Saddam's capabilities. And he's had 10 years to develop particularly biological weapons. We've had the anthrax attacks in the US also and the images now that everybody's seen of al-Qaeda use of chemical weapons. So those are much more implanted in the public mind.

GRADSTEIN: Analysts stress there's no sense of panic among the public, but there is concern and a feeling that an American attack on Iraq will inevitably draw Israel into the conflict. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MONTAGNE: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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