JERUSALEM (AP) _ The gas masks have been distributed, school children have had air-raid drills, and the pilots sit in their warplanes, ready to scramble.

The threat of war is suddenly real for Israel, but seems almost to have crept up on a nation engrossed in other challenges it never imagined.

Israel's panorama of problems includes a flood of Soviet Jewish immigrants, the worsening Palestinian uprising, a potentially catastrophic drought and a financial scandal that has tainted its hallowed air force.

Saddam Hussein's threat to attack with chemical weapons that ''will consume half of Israel'' is taken more as bluster than as a battle plan. Israeli leaders say a few Iraqi missiles might get through, but that casualties will be low if the populace takes their advice and prepares itself.

Most Israelis seem less worried by Saddam's missiles than by Palestinians who have escalated the 3-year-old uprising by stabbing eight Jews to death in three months. They admit to a new level of fear.

''Things are piling up,'' said writer Tom Segev. ''The stabbings are making people desperate - and the fact that it's not raining. These are much more worrying than the war.''

Orit Galili, in a column in the daily Haaretz, said the absence of panic has surprised some psychologists.

''There's a feeling that the public is exhausted,'' Galili wrote. ''Our threshold of excitement is different from other places because of the intensity of events.''

Hardened by five wars in 42 years of nationhood, Israelis seem on the surface to take the latest threat in stride. Preparations have moved at a measured, unhurried pace.

One worry is that, war or no war, Israel will pay the price for Arab participation in the anti-Saddam coalition by being forced to make concessions on the Palestinian issue.

''There are new forces which have suddenly surfaced,'' philosopher David Hartman said. ''The United States, having a deep investment and suddenly bringing international power to bear on this crisis, means we're next.''

Less than four months ago, things looked bright for Israel.

The uprising seemed to have run out of steam and there was euphoria about the opening of Soviet gates to Jewish emigration. The Bush administration, seen here as Washington's least friendly in 35 years, showed warmth toward Israel's restrained response to Iraqi threats.

A turning point came Oct. 8, when Israeli police killed 17 Palestinians in a riot outside a Jerusalem mosque. The incident revived the uprising and the United States supported U.N. condemnations of Israel.

With the buildup to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, which it seized Aug. 2, older Israelis are reminded of the weeks preceding the 1967 Middle East war.

''You know a war is coming and you are expecting it,'' Segev said. ''People feel resigned. I don't think there's any panic, but everyone is a bit apprehensive.''

What has changed is the Israeli perception of the enemy.

In 1967, it was several clearly defined Arab armies. Later, it became the Palestinian guerrilla in a head scarf, with his assault rifle and grenades.

Now it is three nondescript young Arabs who board a bus in a Tel Aviv suburb and kill a yeshiva student with kitchen knives. Or a Palestinian worker who hits his employer from behind with a sledgehammer. Or a teen-age Muslim fundamentalist who steals across the Jordan River and attacks a soldiers in a well-armed military emplacement with a knife.

The public demands action, but is divided on what it wants. Minorities support unilateral withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, or annexing the territories and expelling the 1.7 million Palestinians.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government can do neither. It regards the territories as Israel's God-given land and its best buffer against attack, but knows mass expulsion would be morally indefensible.

Given this quandary, many Israelis seem to have opted for just getting by, with occasional flashes of black humor.

Consider the man on a crowded bus who exclaims: ''People, why are you pushing? We have until the 15th of January 3/8'' or the the Jerusalem discotheque that offered an ''end of the world'' party Friday night.

''There is a real sense now that things are up for grabs as to the direction things can go,'' Hartman said. ''What makes for fear and what makes for hope is that we don't know what the heck is going to come tomorrow.''

A few Israelis joined the stampede of foreigners leaving before Jan. 15, but many more came home to be with their families, and to be available for military reserve duty.

Many families have stockpiled foods and bottled water, and have sealed off a room in their home as a shelter against gas attacks. Others haven't bothered, convinced that a gulf war will not reach Israel.

Headlines have dealt with efforts by orthodox Jews to outlaw the sale of pork, a devastating official report on mismanagement of Israel's precious water resources, and a multimillion-dollar arms-purchasing scandal in the air force.

''This tells me that this is a very healthy people,'' said Hartman, who directs an institute for Jewish studies. ''It's an amazing people that gets excited about those things while the very existence of this whole region is in jeopardy.

''There's an ability to celebrate normalcy in the midst of uncertainty. It's an amazing part of the psyche of the Israeli.''