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Schoolchildren Don Gas Masks In Chemical Warfare Exercise

November 24, 1987

JERUSALEM (AP) _ At the sound of a siren and the boom of taped artillery fire, hundreds of Israeli schoolchildren pulled tight the straps of their gas masks Tuesday in a simulation of a chemical weapons attack.

It was the first such exercise in an Israeli school and part of a recent series of measures taken by the army to prepare civilians for chemical warfare.

The army has become more concerned that Arab countries will wage chemical warfare against Israel since such weapons have been used in the Iran-Iraq war and Syria has acquired ground-to-ground missiles capable of delivering chemical warheads inside Israel.

″There is a growing threat of chemical warfare, mainly from Syria,″ Lt. Col. Mordechai, civil defense coordinator for Israeli schools, said during the half-hour simulation at Jerusalem Traditional Middle and High School. In keeping with army regulations, the officer would not be quoted by full name.

The 370 students, ages 12 to 18, assembled in the schoolyard, each carrying a black gas mask. At the sound of a siren, they pulled the masks over their heads within seconds, tightened the straps and hurried to their classrooms as a loudspeaker played taped battle sounds.

In the school yard, two boys collapsed as part of the scenario and were carried away on stretchers and bandaged. Teachers lighted fires in two empty oil drums, and students tried to douse the flames. One boy lost control of his fire extinguisher and the smoke brought tears to the eyes of dozens of military officials, reporters and photographers.

In the classrooms, students were told to keep their masks on, and teachers handed out writing assignments to help pass the time. When excited seventh graders got up from their seats, an army officer admonished: ″Quiet children, breathe slowly, no jumping.″

All children interviewed said the exercise had increased their fear of war, but their teacher, who would only give her first name - Mazal - said: ″What can we do? This is life in Israel.″

Ben-Ari Friedgut, 12, whose family came to Israel from New Rochelle, N.Y., four years ago, said war would be terrible. ″The enemy has gases that spread in the country, and if we are not prepared, it can kill us,″ he said.

Like all students at the school, he had received several hours of instruction on how to prepare for such a war. He showed a reporter how to adjust a gas mask and explained how to inject oneself after exposure to nerve gas and how to apply skin powder after a mustard gas attack.

Fifteen-year-old Michal Irron, who described herself as a pacifist, said she refused to participate in the simulation. ″I can’t resign myself to the realities in Israel. People take it as a game, and it disturbs me very much.″

Education Minister Yitzhak Navon visited the school during the exercise, briefly putting on a gas mask and talking to students.

The Jerusalem school was among the first four in the country to stage a full-scale simulation of a chemical weapons attack, Mordechai said. If the test was successful, officials planned more at other schools.

The daily Hadashot newspaper reported recently that Israel has set aside 8,000 hospital beds for burn victims. Also stored were kits for civilians containing gas masks, protective clothing and syringes with medication effective for several hours against exposure to some poisonous chemicals, the report said.

Military officials said hospitals in Haifa and Jerusalem have conducted exercises in which they treated hundreds of make-believe gas victims. Hadashot said 4,000 high school students serving in Gadna, a paramilitary youth organization, have been trained to undress and decontaminate victims.

Last year, Israel carried out a six-hour preparedness exercise involving 1,000 people, including 250 who pretended to be gas victims.

Army officials have said such measures were necessary in light of growing threats from Israel’s Arab enemies.

Joe Colodner, director of the Education Ministry’s psychological and counseling services, said such simulations would be beneficial in the long run, despite initial fears expressed by some children.

″Kids are not stupid. They know about chemical warfare from television and the movies,″ he said. ″As soon as you remove the unknown, there is less fear.″

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