- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

JERUSALEM The long lines that have formed outside gas-mask distribution centers in Israel over the past few days reflect a widespread feeling that while the U.S. retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks may begin in Afghanistan, it will eventually reach Iraq.

If that indeed happens, the expectation is that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may, if threatened, attempt to take Israel with him before he falls.

Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf war and it is believed to still have 10 to 20 missiles hidden. This time, it is feared, Saddam may attempt to use chemical or biological warheads instead of high explosives. Israel did not respond to the Scuds in 1991 at Washington's request.

Israeli military sources say that Israel is better positioned to forestall such attacks than it was a decade ago. An Israeli spy satellite is now aloft in the skies of the Middle East, keeping a diligent eye on Iraq. Other means of intelligence are also in place.

Israel's modern air fleet and its special forces have improved their capability of reaching Iraqi launch sites since the Gulf war. Israel's Arrow anti-missile system is now operational, as are several Patriot anti-missile batteries acquired from the United States. Patriots proved unable to interdict missiles in the Gulf war, but an improved version, now in place, is said to be effective.

Despite all these safeguards, Israel and the United States would prefer to forestall an Iraqi attack in the event of a showdown, which is why Israel is more likely to insist on striking first if it feels threatened this time.

Osama bin Laden has also targeted Israel, say Israeli officials, although his organization has not yet carried out operations in the country. Last year, Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip who, they said, had returned from Pakistan with a mission from bin Laden's organization to set up a network in the Palestinian territories.

Israelis generally understand Washington's desire to keep their country out of the coalition, as it did during the Gulf war, in order not to undermine efforts to recruit Muslim nations to the anti-terror cause. Behind the scenes, Israel will continue to provide intelligence.

The irony of being kept out of the coalition while states that harbor terrorist organizations, like Syria and perhaps the Palestinian Authority as well are invited in is not lost on Israel.

A senior aide to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Avi Gil, is reported to have commented on it to a senior Palestinian official last week. Washington has demanded that the Palestinian Authority make "a 100 percent effort" to curb terror while Israel, which has insisted on "100 percent results," says that the authority is in fact encouraging terror.

Noting that the authority might nevertheless be invited to join the coalition, Mr. Gil said in jest, "Maybe you can put in a good word for us with the Americans." The Palestinian, likewise appreciating the irony of the situation, said, "We'll make a 100 percent effort."

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