All Quiet, So Far

Israelis hit the pinnacle of tension in the hours before the
U.S. attack on Iraq, when the order came for every person to open his gas mask
kit, twist on the filter, adjust the straps to fit his head and then carry the
mask at all times. Recalling the first Gulf War, when Iraqi missile attacks
followed the U.S. invasion in swift succession, they anticipated sirens
screaming in the middle of the night.

During the first Gulf War, the Tel-Aviv area was the target
of most of the Iraqi missiles, and people left the city in droves for safer
locations abroad or in the country’s periphery.

Although there has been a small exodus this time, most
people are staying put. But they are keeping their ears cocked and, in the
meantime, allowing themselves small luxuries that they think will calm them

Some foreign airlines are reinstating their Israeli routes
suspended at the war’s outset. One man related how he is supposed to fly to the
United States on a business trip this week. But, he jested half-seriously that
he would be embarrassed to be seen at the airport.

“People will think I am running away,” he explained. “I am
not afraid to stay here, but there is one thing I am afraid of: I am terrified
to look afraid.”

A friend of mine has made — and then canceled — at least
four reservations to send her children to their grandmother in Canada. At
first, she was determined to send them out before the attack, thinking that
airspace might be closed thereafter.

Then, she planned to fly them out when Bush gave his
ultimatum speech. Then, she put it off until hostilities erupted. Yet so far,
they are still home.

In the morning, she sends her children to school, all of
which remain open around the country. Up to 50 percent of parents, though, kept
their children home in the first two days. Now, school attendance is almost
back to normal.

When my teenage daughter was invited to be a guest of
another friend’s family in their quiet home in the south of Israel, I snapped
up the invitation with relief. It wasn’t as drastic as leaving the country, but
it still looked safer to us.

My daughter had different ideas, saying, “Mom, why should I
go when all my friends are here? And besides, I can’t miss swim practice.”

Her swim team is going ahead with its daily workouts.
Following official directives, I send her off to the pool with her swim bag
over one shoulder and her gas mask over the other.

These youngsters, too young to remember the first Gulf War,
seem unaffected by the general anxiety. As days pass in silence in Israel,
people are starting to feel the enormous preparations of the last few months
may be like a fire drill without a fire.

The U.S. Patriot missiles are scattered around the country,
and hospitals are on state of high alert, with staff assigned to units for
treatment of possible wounded.

Several people were hospitalized — after injecting
themselves with the atropine syringe included in the gas mask kit. Some were
children playing with the injections; others had mistaken their own anxiety for
symptoms of a chemical attack.

One family slept in their sealed room, which they had sealed
too well. The mother and one of her son were asphyxiated.

Yet, there are cracks in the wall of tension. One man has
taken down all the plastic sheeting and dismantled his home’s protected space,
commenting wryly, “Those who needed to make money have already made it.”

A TV cameraman filmed every single government official, from
the prime minister on down. Not one of them carried the gas masks that had been
declared mandatory for every person to keep on hand. How can the minister of
education tell every teacher and student how to act, when the minister doesn’t
set an example?

Israeli news broadcasts nonstop war coverage. One focus is
on U.S. progress in western Iraq, from which missiles can be fired toward
Israel. Another is the increasingly frequent public mention by the Iraqis of
the role they accuse Israel of playing in the conflict. For example, Saddam
Hussein’s televised address Monday singled out Zionist support for the
Americans and British.

In the meantime, all is still quiet on the western front.
Israelis are only hoping it’s not the quiet before the storm. As one woman
signs her e-mails: “May you have a peaceful war.”  

Helen Schary Motro, an American writer and lawyer living in Israel, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.