Nine-year-old Gil Schwarz twirled in his seat and giggled Thursday as a female soldier fitted him for a gas mask.
“This is cool,” he said. But his mother Miriam, trying to appear calm, admitted: “I’m worried.”
Fearing that the escalating U.S.-Iraq crisis will lead to an attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces, hundreds of Israeli children and their parents spent hours in line at gas mask centers nationwide Thursday. They came to replace masks and get protective bassinets for babies and atropine syringes to counteract the effects of nerve gas.
Israeli officials said the likelihood of an attack was remote, but they admitted they were considering a program of mass inoculation against a biological attack.
The Israeli army spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also warned that Gulf War-era gas masks were no longer functional and needed to be replaced.
Although Israelis are not required to own gas masks, any citizen can obtain one from the army.
Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles with conventional warheads at Israel in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, causing the deaths of 11 Israelis, but Israel bowed to U.S. pressure and stayed out of the conflict.
Rafael Eitan, Israel’s agriculture and environment minister, said Israel might act differently if the situation were repeated.
Staying out of the war “caused us a great deal of damage psychologically, and it also damaged our deterrent,” Eitan, a former army chief, said on Israel radio. “We have learned our lesson well.”
Eitan said it was impossible to predict what Saddam would do if the United States attacked Iraq. “We have to address what he is capable of doing, not what he will do,” he said.
According to Israel’s Channel 2 TV, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai discussed the Iraq situation Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen on the hot line between the two governments.
Saddam has not actually threatened to attack Israel this time, however, and security officials have urged Israel’s leaders to avoid any statements that Baghdad might deem provocative.
“We are in a period where you need to be cautious of every word,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Spokesman David Bar-Illan said Netanyahu would discuss the situation with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she arrived in Israel on Saturday. In the meantime, Netanyahu met Thursday with U.S. Ambassador Edward Walker.
Israel’s Channel 2 TV said the army estimated that a chemical attack on a major Israeli city could kill as many as 500 people, and Israel TV cited “Western reports” that Iraq has 2,200 gallons of anthrax and 2,600 gallons of botulism toxins.
Nahman Shai, who was the army spokesman during the Gulf War, said there was no reason to panic.
“I’m tired of people crying wolf,” the Maariv newspaper quoted him as saying. “Every few months we go though this - and in the end there is nothing.”