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Possible Iraq War Stirs Fears in Israel

December 2, 2002

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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ In the junk lot of a military base, a rusting Iraqi Scud missile that slammed into Israel but didn’t explode sits propped on cinderblocks, surrounded by ruined warheads, engines fringed with wires, junked fuel and combustion tanks _ remnants of the 1991 Gulf War.

For Israelis, the renewed possibility of war with Iraq has stirred memories of those 32 days under attack _ the whine of air raid sirens, children sent to school with gas masks along with their books, empty nighttime streets in this city that normally hums.

Israelis seem to have reason to feel more secure this time: their new Arrow anti-missile system, built with U.S. help, can demolish Scuds in flight.

Still, the country is preparing for another possible Scud barrage, giving medical workers smallpox vaccines, bringing in Patriot anti-missile batteries and urging citizens to make sure they have sealed rooms in their homes and know the location of the nearest bomb shelter.

Some residents of Israel’s crowded coastal cities, where most of the Scuds fell in 1991, are already planning to head to Jerusalem, which is unlikely to be targeted because of its large Arab population and Muslim holy sites.

During the Gulf War, tens of thousands of Tel Aviv resident fled the city for hotels in Jerusalem and the remote southern Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Yet, while some Israelis are preparing for possible new attacks, others are coping with the results of the 1991 strikes. Memories are especially bitter for 26-year-old Yaniv Shemesh and others who still struggle with injuries.

Nearly 12 years after a Scud toppled his building in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, Shemesh still has debilitating anxiety attacks, some so severe he ends up in the hospital. His blood pressure shoots up, he gets dizzy and struggles to breathe.

He lives on a monthly $150 disability check and the occasional job as a security guard or supermarket clerk.

``I don’t sleep at night. I live on pills. It stopped my whole life,″ he said of the attack.

He remembers watching ``The Cosby Show″ as a 14-year-old one night with his parents when the alarms sounded. The TV screen went blue and displayed the words: ``Israel is under attack.″ Some 90 seconds later came the explosion, shredding walls and roofs and leaving floors sandwiched together.

``It was like a camera flash. And the buildings fell like Legos,″ Shemesh said.

Israel has received about $94 million in compensation for its losses from Iraq through the United Nations, according to the Ministry of Justice. The money went to the injured and those who lost property and businesses, though Shemesh said he didn’t receive funds because he applied too late.

Some of the crude, erratic Scuds Iraq fired at Israel broke up in flight or failed to explode on impact; others splashed down in the Mediterranean.

In all, 20 of the 39 missiles fired at Israel struck the country’s soil, most in and around Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest metropolis. None had chemical warheads. Some 11,000 apartments were damaged, but casualties were remarkably few. One man was killed in a direct hit on his house and 230 people were wounded. Several others suffered fatal heart attacks or suffocated in gas masks.

Iraqi-modified Scuds, called al-Hussein rockets, can reach Israel in less than eight minutes.

The rockets, made lighter by emptying some of the explosives from the warheads, have a range of up to 400 miles, far beyond the range of normal Scuds.

Oddly, in the warheads of a few of the missiles fired in 1991, the explosives were replaced with concrete. Iraq called them al-Hijara, Arabic for ``The Stone.″

``Iraqi TV reports said it was a kind of a gesture to the Palestinians who were fighting their uprising (against Israel) with stones,″ said Yiftah Shapir of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Israel’s defense minister at the time, Moshe Arens, warned that Israel would hit back. But an Israeli response could have ended Arab support for the fight against Iraq, and might have started a wider Arab-Israeli war. Under American pressure, Israel did not to strike back.

Now, Israeli officials have said the country’s forces would respond. Still, the chance of an Iraqi attack is considered to be small.

In 1991, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatened to ``incinerate half of Israel″ and sought to draw Israel into the battle and break up the U.S.-led coalition that included many Arab armies.

This time around, Saddam has made no such direct threats, and there’s no Arab coalition for Saddam to shake up. Furthermore, Israel’s $2 billion Arrow anti-missile system is the most advanced in the world and the air force believes it could shoot down more than 90 percent of incoming missiles.

Military analysts believe Iraq, which was thought to have hundreds of missiles in the Gulf War, now has a much smaller arsenal.

Some laugh off the worry altogether.

David Hevroni, 50, whose flower shop was blown to bits in Ramat Gan, jokes that, like lightning, missiles never strike the same place twice.