The Big Fear

There was such a crush of people at the gas-maskdistribution center in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station this week thata portable fence had to be set up at the doorway — just to keeppeople from pushing their way in.

About 100 people were pressed up against thefence. Many were shouting at the soldiers, who looked clearlyoverwhelmed. A few goofy teen-agers grabbed the loudspeaker out of asoldier’s hand and began making siren sounds — like the ones thatannounced the falling of Scuds during the Gulf War.

“Is there going to be a war or not?” asked EstherLevian, 60. “Why do I have to wait here for hours when they say thegas mask won’t do you any good anyway?”

“It’s better to wait than to die,” said oneman.

The Big Fear has hit Israel. No amount ofreassurances from Israeli leaders and defense experts that Saddam ishighly, highly unlikely to attack Israel, will calm people down. Asurvey by Dr. Mina Tsemach, Israel’s leading public opinion pollster,found that 52 percent of Israelis believe that if the U.S. attacksIraq, Saddam will fire missiles on Israel. Fifty-three percent saidthat they feel unprotected against biological or chemicalweapons.

Explanations from experts that Saddam knows Israelwill wipe him out if he attacks with nonconventional weapons, andthat the Iraqi arsenal isn’t nearly as formidable as it used to be,haven’t had much calming effect. “Saddam is crazy. Anything canhappen,” was the refrain repeated over and over again at the gas-maskcenter. “I don’t trust anything anybody tells me,” was anotherpopular sentiment.

Hysteria was spreading, in no small part, due tothe media. The daily tabloids were running stories with big headlinessuch as “Anthrax: The Quiet Killer.” Radio interviewers refused totake no for an answer to their questions about the imminence of war,and pressed on: “What if? What if missiles loaded with anthrax landon Israel?” The experts being interviewed would comply by describinga dreadful but hypothetical scenario; the interviewer — and tens ofthousands of listeners — would forget about the hypothetical andonly remember the dreadful; and the fear just grew and grew.

A sonic boom went off over the skies of Tel Aviv– something that happens all the time — and there were so manycalls to police that radio announcers had to explain that it was justa sonic boom, not Saddam’s missiles.

The Netanyahu government at first instituted a”low profile” information policy — meaning that government officialssaid precious little except that the authorities had things undercontrol, and that there was no need for panic. The government’sreasoning was that too many messages might confuse the public andworry them even more.

This policy came under attack from just abouteverybody. “There is no better way of throwing an entire nation intoa fit of anxiety and panic than by continually reminding its citizensthat they have no reason to feel anxiety or panic,” wrote veteranHa’aretz columnist Yoel Marcus.

So, on Tuesday, a lineup of army generals andhealth officials gave a high-profile press conference and said, inone voice, that there was a minuscule chance of an Iraqi attack onIsrael. And even if, in a last-ditch, desperation move, Saddammanaged to load one of his few launchers with some of his fewmissiles and succeed in hitting Israel, people’s gas masks and sealedrooms offered them sure protection. If anybody happened to be withouthis or her gas mask when chemical or biological agents fell nearthem, the hospitals and clinics had enough antidotes to neutralizethe danger, officials insisted.

But it wasn’t certain that even the amended policyof talking to the public would have the desired effect. Referring toreports that Prime Minister Netanyahu was preparing to “address thenation” — which, as of the beginning of the week, he didn’t do — awoman at the Tel Aviv distribution center said, “This proves thatsomething serious is going on.”

Part of the problem was the public’s memory of howIsraeli authorities prepared them for the Gulf War. In many cases,their memories were wholly distorted. “They told us nothing was goingto happen the last time, and look what happened,” said one man. Infact, everyone knew, and everyone said that Saddam was going to bombIsrael in 1991.

“The head of the air force said that the worst theScuds could do was make a little hole in a wall, and the Scudsknocked down buildings,” said one woman, insistingly. The head of theair force, of course, never made such a ridiculous statement.

But the authorities did tell Israelis before andduring the Gulf War that their best protection was to pick out a roomin their apartment, seal its doors and windows with masking tapeagainst gas or biological agents, and sit out the Scuds inside. Thegas and biological agents never arrived, but the Scuds did, and thesealed rooms and masking tape were no defense against them.

So uncertainty, mistrust and galloping fear are inthe Israeli air today as a U.S. attack on Iraq seems to draw closer.Hearing my American-accented Hebrew, a woman at the distributioncenter asked if I could help her get to the United States.

Malka Revuen, 50, said that she didn’t believe thegas mask would do any good against chemical or biological weaponsanyway. Then why was she willing to wait hours to get one? “In asituation like this, you hang onto anything you can for security.It’s psychological.”

Former air force commander Avihu Bin-Nun said thatIsraelis were fighting Saddam’s psychological war for him. “He’s noteven threatening us; we’re threatening ourselves.”

As a woman at the distribution center put it: “Ifeverybody’s talking about the danger, then Saddam’s already gottenthe better of us.”

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