Israeli Schools Prepare for War

My daughter’s friend, Hilla, said her 11th-grade social
relations class at Herzliya’s Yovel High School normally focused on familiar
adolescent topics: interpersonal problems, difficulties with exams, the dangers
of drinking and driving.

But this winter her class spent its time poring over a
hastily distributed text from the Ministry of Education, starkly titled “The

Almost a century after soldiers’ lungs were burned out by
mustard gas in World War I, Hilla and her classmates can tick off the characteristics
of nonconventional warfare: possibilities of advance preparation, widespread
damage to living organisms, long-term harm to the environment, severe
psychological ramifications.

As I drove the girls, I heard Hilla, 17, talking to my
daughter in the backseat.

“Today the soldiers came to our class and showed us how to
inject ourselves with atropine in case of a gas attack,” she said.

“How do you know when to do it?” my daughter asked.

“I guess when they tell you to on the radio,” Hilla said.

“You mean you have to give yourself an injection?” My
daughter is aghast.

“Well, I guess my mom or dad could give it to me and my
little brother,” Hilla answered. “And I told my mother to buy talc. That’s what
they said we should spread on our skin to soak up chemicals so they don’t get

Later, Hilla’s mother and I exchange macabre jokes: “I have
some perfumed powder with a furry puff I once got as a gift. Do you think that
will be good enough to ward off poison chemicals?”

For Israeli students, chemical and biological weapons are
not theoretical subjects like trigonometry or physics: They know the horrors
spelled out in “The Threat” may spill over into their own lives. Instead of
buckling down for the second semester, Israeli schools must focus on a wild
card variable: what to do if war breaks out with Iraq and Israel becomes the
target of a nonconventional attack?

The situation in the school system mirrors that of Israeli
society at large: confusion, conflicting opinions and assessments alternating
between assurances and dire warnings.

Education Minister Limor Livnat has declared that the school
system is preparing for all eventualities, but she conceded that not all
schools have access to bomb shelters, and in case of war may close down or operate
on shifts as they did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Zevulun Orlev, chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee,
put it more strongly: “There isn’t a single school that is ready [for an
attack],” he said, raising fears that shelters at some schools might become
“death traps.” 

School security is uncentralized, with each municipality or
school administration having responsibility. Acknowledging the gaps in
preparedness, the Ministry of Education plans to move studies into protected
locations, such as community centers, if necessary. Soldiers are visiting 3,000
schools nationwide this month to familiarize pupils with emergency
preparedness. Though the population at large has a collective memory of the
Gulf War, these children were either toddlers or not yet born in 1991. One of
their strongest anxieties is what will become of their pets. Why can’t dogs
wear gas masks, too, they want to know.

Every educational institution in Israel has received a
booklet published in November 2002 by the Ministry of Education. The booklet
outlines preparations for emergency situations, from forming teams for 10
classrooms to procedures for entering shelters. Emergency situations are listed
as war with one or all neighboring countries, missile attacks by Iraq, Iran or
Syria, short-range missile attacks, gunfire in or around school — and such
natural disasters like earthquake or fire.

In addition, schools have received CDs with recommended
activities in a state of emergency, either in school shelters during an attack
or in other places if schools have been closed. These include games and group
activities that can be performed in a shelter, and how students can discuss
current events to occupy their time. There is a separate section detailing
activities that will help youngsters express their feelings and apprehensions
in time of crisis, as well as a list of games and artwork for small groups.

The Education Ministry plans a conference for the country’s
psychological counseling staff on how to prepare students for global events.

Near Yovel, the Walworth Barbour American International School
is preparing in its own way. The 500 students at this K-12 private school
include children of diplomats and foreign businessmen living in Israel. About
10 percent of the students are Israeli. War preparedness is top priority at the
American School. Parents were invited to hear a briefing from the
superintendent on dismissal procedures, security updates and projections of how
studies might be conducted in case of war.

Most of the non-Israeli students may leave the country if
war breaks out, so the American School is emphasizing distance learning.
Through an electronic educational system called Blackboard, students can get
assignments, hand them in and get them back corrected, all via the Internet. To
familiarize themselves, students have been receiving routine assignments using
Blackboard. Younger students’ parents also are expected to learn the system.

The American School’s approach was born of experience: It
closed temporarily during the 1991 Gulf War, in response to the mass exodus of
its student body.

This time things will be different, the school’s
superintendent, Robert Sills, vowed. He is adamant that the school will stay
open to serve the significant number of students expected to weather the storm
in Israel.

The American School is equipped with bomb shelters for
students and staff, and loudspeakers periodically announce emergency drills.

“Do you feel nervous during the drills?” I asked my

“No,” she answered, “they’re just boring.”

She and her friends have become as nonchalant about bomb
shelter practice as they were about fire drills in simpler days. In the nearby
public schools, though, her friends don’t have bomb drills.

“I’m not even sure where the shelters are,” Hilla said.
“Anyway, most people in my class say that if war comes they will go to
relatives in Jerusalem, or down to the Negev, or even to Europe.”

I recall that as a member of the parent’s association during
the Gulf War, I volunteered one morning to help tape up the windows of the
Herzliya public high school my older daughter was attending. The tape was
supposed to protect against gas leaking in. It was a ludicrous task: Most of
the windows didn’t close properly, and many lacked glass panes. Taping up the
gaping holes was an exercise in futility.

For students in Israel this winter, tentativeness is again
the name of the game. The school play? The hockey marathon? The French midterm?
Everybody plans for them as if nothing is out of the ordinary. But who knows
how the world will be when the sophomore dance rolls around?

For years after the Gulf War, families had rolls and rolls
of unused masking tape they had nervously purchased during the hostilities.
This time, in addition to tape, maybe they will have stocks of talc to help
absorb chemicals on the skin their teen-agers learned about in school.

Much as they joke about it, the students hope that the seals
on the talc containers stay intact.  

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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