- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

JERUSALEM The radar waves scanning the eastern sky from the Holy Land this Christmas season are not searching for a star guiding the three wise men; they are warming up to detect missiles from Saddam Hussein.
In the coming days, Israel will decide whether to inoculate the entire population against smallpox, and this week it began distributing gas masks to schoolchildren, all in preparation for a U.S. war against Iraq.
With war increasingly likely, the Jewish state is preparing for Iraq to strike as it did in the 1991 Gulf war, when it fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli population centers.
Then, all the missiles had conventional warheads, but Israel fears this time Saddam will use chemical or biological weapons.
The Health Ministry has inoculated 15,000 to 20,000 medical and rescue workers against the smallpox virus and has enough immunizations to vaccinate the 6.6 million population, Boaz Lev, the ministry's director-general, told Army Radio yesterday. He said the ministry can inoculate the population in a few days.
"The Cabinet will have to decide in the next few days. It all depends on how possible the scenario is," said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We are now covering all possible contingencies, and this is another element of it."
Israeli officials reportedly have been notified by Washington that an allied strike against Iraq can be expected between the end of January and the end of February. The Israeli Home Front Command, responsible for the civilian population, is expected to go on full alert in mid-January.
More than 1,000 American soldiers have arrived in Israel in the past few days to set up Patriot missile batteries that would attempt to destroy Iraqi missiles fired at Israel.
The Patriots would serve as backup to the Arrow anti-missile missiles developed by Israel.
The Arrow, never yet used operationally, has a longer range than the Patriot and could, theoretically, intercept missiles long before they enter Israeli airspace.
This is of particular importance if chemical or biological warheads are involved because the fallout would not be on Israeli territory. If the Arrows miss, the Patriots would be a backup.
Israeli newspapers were plastered yesterday with headlines on preparations for an Iraqi attack.
"The Israeli army has chosen targets to attack in Iraq," a front-page headline in the Maariv newspaper declared, using "Preparing for Red Hail" logos on several pages dedicated to the issue.
Yediot Ahronot, another mass-circulation Israeli newspaper, dedicated the first half of the newspaper to stories on Israel's preparations, including a nearly full-page graphic instructing the public on what to do in different scenarios, among them a chemical attack.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would be warned by the United States of an impending attack. He said Israel is better prepared then it was in 1991 to deal with an Iraqi threat.
"We are on the outside of this war, at least at this stage, but it must be remembered that if the United States decides to attack, there are also dangers to the state of Israel," Mr. Mofaz told Israeli radio.
With the threat of war with Iraq and the ongoing Palestinian uprising, the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where the Christmas story began, has not even permitted itself the illusion of holiday spirit this year.
Manger Square, in the heart of Bethlehem, is without decoration. Dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants remain shut. Hotels and inns are empty.
The Israeli army has lifted the curfew on the city for the holiday, and arrangements have been made to permit Christians from outside the city to pass through the military checkpoints for the day.
"I hope that God will help us have a peaceful celebration," said Bishop Aristorchus of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee.

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