- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

JERUSALEM As the countdown to war in Iraq approached yesterday, Palestinians and Israelis braced for dangers closer to home from each other.
Officials of the Palestinian Authority have called on militant Islamic organizations such as Hamas to refrain from suicide bombings or other major attacks inside Israel for fear that Israel will undertake mass expulsions of Palestinians, including perhaps Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while the world is distracted by the Iraq war.
Israel, for its part, fears that militant Palestinian organizations may attempt major terror attacks as an expression of support for Saddam Hussein and in order to draw the world's attention to their cause.
Even as Israel's security arms went on 24-hour high alert, the government moved yesterday to continue civilian life normally.
After a briefing from security officials, the Cabinet directed that schools remain open today, though the starting bell for the school day will ring only five hours after the American ultimatum to Saddam passes.
"We decided that the best way to avoid panic is to continue with routine and not sit home in sealed rooms," said Education Minister Limor Livnat after the Cabinet meeting. "We made this decision after hearing all the relevant authorities."
Should an Iraqi missile attack occur while the children are at school, Mrs. Livnat said, shelters have been prepared and the staff and children have been drilled in necessary precautions. If war in Iraq does begin before school starts, many parents are expected to keep their children home.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at a press conference that the dangers of an Iraqi attack were very small. "But if the chances of being hit are 1 percent, we are taking steps as if they were 100 percent," he said.
The public has been told to prepare sealed rooms but not yet to open their gas-mask kits. Once war begins, the authorities may ask people to carry gas masks wherever they go.
The air force has begun to patrol Israel's eastern border round-the-clock in order to intercept any Iraqi plane that might be sent and anti-missile batteries have been deployed throughout the country.
The air force has reportedly drawn up a detailed list of targets in Iraq, mainly infrastructure, should Israel be attacked and the government decide to retaliate.
Mr. Sharon indicated that "business as usual" for Israel will mean continued pressure on Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where many have been killed in recent weeks in Israeli raids. Palestinian civilians have also died in these incursions. Yesterday, two Hamas military leaders in the West Bank were killed in separate clashes with Israeli soldiers. One soldier was killed.
Meanwhile, a 50-year-old Israeli motorist was killed near a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank. Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, took responsibility.
The Palestinian public has begun to stock up on essential supplies for fear that Israel might impose a strict curfew, as it did during the 1991 war to forestall disturbances. Israel was supposed to distribute gas masks to 60,000 Palestinians living in parts of the West Bank under its direct control, but has not yet done so.

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