- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

TEL AVIV Israel's government sent a mixed message to its citizens yesterday, telling them to keep their gas masks with them at all times while encouraging them to go about their routine.

"I call on all citizens to continue the daily life as normal," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Israel isn't a part of this conflict."

But business as usual was impossible in the country, with its population of 6 million fearing a repeat of the 1991 Persian Gulf war when Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles.

The Israeli military also appeared to be on edge. A false Scud alarm at the Palmahim air force base sent soldiers scurrying to their stations to fire the Arrow anti-ballistic missile to intercept the imagined attack, the Ha'aretz newspaper reported on its Web site.

The local media was saturated with coverage of the U.S.-led war on Iraq and politicians said the overkill was fanning the flames of panic.

Midday reports about an Iraqi missile attack on Kuwait worried Israelis who fear that Baghdad still possesses medium-range ballistic Scud missiles.

Nonetheless, Israel took heart as other bulletins reported that U.S. Special Forces had been sent into western Iraq to prevent a repeat of the missile strikes.

Even though Palestinian militants fired primitive Qassam rockets into southern Israel yesterday, this latest violence in the 30-month Palestinian uprising was pushed to the margins of the country's attention.

Israelis, instead, worried about whether their gas mask kits were in working order after the army's home-front command instructed citizens Wednesday night to try on gear meant to protect them from a biological or chemical strike.

In Jerusalem, a crush of ultra-Orthodox Jews crowded outside a military distribution center, pleading with soldiers to keep the center open so that they could get new gas masks.

But on the streets of Tel Aviv, which absorbed the brunt of the Iraqi Scuds during the 1991 war, only a few of the army-issued gas mask kits were visible. Many chose to keep them concealed.

"It isn't cool to be afraid," said Atalia Ben Menachem, who carried two of the boxes camouflaged in a red shopping bag from Amsterdam. "It's embarrassing. People don't want to go around with them so they cover it up."

Even though education officials had said two days earlier that classes would continue as normal, parents debated whether to send children to school.

At Tel Aviv's Ayalon Elementary school, there was little studying in store for those students whose parents didn't keep them at home.

The pupils that showed up came balancing backpacks on one shoulder and brown cardboard kits slung over the other. And they spent the morning decorating the brown cardboard-box kits with a rainbow of fluorescent stickers and drew grinning faces in the shape of hearts.

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