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Israelis Warned of Conflict

February 9, 1998

JERUSALEM (AP) _ War with Iraq is unlikely, but just to be safe, get a gas mask. That’s the Israeli government’s advice, and thousands of Israelis are heeding it daily, flocking to gas-mask distribution centers to pick up their free protective kits.

But things get a little complicated if you’re in Israel as a tourist. Or a foreign worker. Or a Palestinian living in Israeli-controlled territory. Or even a religious Jewish man whose long beard makes it impossible to use an ordinary mask.

After some initial hemming and hawing _ and pointed reports in the Israeli press about gas-mask haves and have-nots _ Israeli officials are taking the position that in principle, everyone in Israel should be able to get protective gear.

Last week, the attorney general, in consultation with the defense establishment, decided that Israel has the responsibility to provide gas masks to ``the entire population residing in the country.″

But the government hasn’t decided when and how that would happen. As of Sunday, only Israeli citizens were being issued masks at army distribution centers.

Many foreigners, meanwhile, are growing increasingly nervous. A small group of African workers gathered Sunday outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to plead for the right to get protective gear now.

``We are afraid that when we eventually receive the masks, there will be no time to learn how to put them on,″ said Mohammed Mansaray, a 31-year-old house cleaner from Sierra Leone. ``In an emergency, there is panic.″

Asked when non-citizens could get masks, one woman taking calls on the army’s public-information ``Homefront″ line replied jokingly: ``Don’t worry _ it’ll be before the bombs fall.″

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that the probability of an attack on Israel remains low, and that all necessary steps were being taken to protect the public.

Iraq, which launched 39 conventional missiles at Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has not threatened the Jewish state during the current crisis over U.N. weapons inspections. Saddam Hussein’s government says it has destroyed all of its chemical weapons, a claim inspectors view with skepticism.

Chemical-warfare scenarios are particularly chilling in Israel, with its Holocaust-shadowed past. Hence, many consider the notion of leaving anyone defenseless in the event of a gas attack particularly abhorrent.

``We are talking about protecting human beings,″ said spokesman Miriam Leedor of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has been campaigning to get gas masks for foreign workers.

Israel and the Palestinians agree that in territory under the control of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the responsibility for distributing masks belongs to the Palestinians. Few protective measures are in place, however.

There has been debate, though, about whether Israel is obliged to provide protective gear to the 60,000 Palestinians living in areas still under full Israeli control.

The attorney general confirmed Israel’s obligation to do so under a previous Supreme Court ruling, but did not spell out the logistics.

Some temporary residents of Israel have taken matters into their own hands and simply purchased masks at a cost of about $100.

However, Shalon Chemical Industries, an Israeli company that makes masks, said it has been instructed not to sell any more of them directly to the public until it has fulfilled all government orders.

Even for Israeli citizens who are legally entitled to gas masks, getting them can be arduous.

Bearded religious Jews need masks equipped with special battery-powered pumps. In order to obtain them, they first must go to distribution centers, register, get a regular kit, and leave a request for the special ones. Then, they wait for the army to contact them and they return with the regular masks for an exchange.

``I don’t know why they have to make so much bureaucracy,″ said Avraham Ravitz, a lawmaker from an ultra-religious party. ``If someone has a beard, let them have the kit they need to begin with.″

In a country not noted for elaborate displays of public courtesy, scenes at army gas-mask distribution centers feature long lines and short tempers. Despite the opening of seven new distribution stations Sunday, there still was grumbling over slowness and inefficiency.

At a center in a Jerusalem mall on Sunday, people showed up beginning at 7 a.m., quickly filling a 600-name waiting list. Those who came later were turned away by the hundreds, some arguing heatedly with police guarding the center’s access stairs.

Marci Chentow, 26, a graduate student, said she thought the chaotic atmosphere was fanning fears: ``If you’re not panicked when you get here, you are after this.″

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