Israel reportedly told Pentagon about Syria poison gas

Israel notified the Pentagon that Syria was preparing a chemical believed to be deadly sarin gas and loading it into dozens of 500-pound bombs destined for airplanes.

Israel's warning to the United States at the end of November, involving intelligence showing up on satellite imagery, brought together the U.S., Arab states, Russia and China to deal with Syria's deadly civil war, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The quick action put a halt to the bomb preparation and reduced the threat to the Syrian rebels for the time being, but the bombs could be put to use at any time, according to the newspaper.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly traveled to Jordan in recent weeks to discuss how to deal with Syrian weapons if they were transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where they could be shot at Israel, The New York Times reported, citing Israeli media.

French teens arrested for chemical explosion near teacher who reported anti-Semitism

Two French teenagers were arrested on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher after she reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The teenagers, 16 and 19 years old, were arrested on Dec. 13 in Aix-en-Provence near Marseille in southern France for allegedly setting off a chemical explosion in the classroom of their plastic arts teacher, according to France Info, a public radio station. No one was hurt in the explosion.

The teacher, Chantal Viroulou, told the radio station that before the incident, “students from that class, two or three of them at least, called me and told me: 'Jew, we will break your face.'” Viroulou, who teaches at the Latecoere professional high school in the town of Istres, did not say whether she was Jewish.

An unnamed police source told Ouest France, a local daily, that Viroulou is not Jewish and that “the anti-Semitic connotation” is not being investigated. The source added that the explosion — which the two suspects allegedly caused by mixing hydrochloric acid with aluminium — “had nothing to do” with the threat.

Earlier this week, the news site Lyonmag reported that a teacher undergoing conversion was fired after she reported repeated anti-Semitic harassment by her pupils at Condorcet secondary school in Saint-Priest, a southern suburb of Lyon.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a French nonprofit, wrote on Dec. 13 to France's minister of education to ask him to launch a special action against “the development of anti-Semitic acts and behavior” in French schools.

Israeli tablets to purify water for Syrians

Citing humanitarian reasons, the Israeli Finance Ministry recently gave the green light for a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals – which is owned by the Israeli company but is based in Ireland – to sell water purification tablets for distribution in war-torn Syria, even though it is considered an enemy state.

With clean water availability at an all-time low in Syria, the United Nations international aid agency UNICEF has been working to rehabilitate the country’s water sources.

The organization turned to Medentech, Israel Chemicals’ Ireland-based subsidiary, with a request to buy its AquaTabs water purification tablets. But the law prohibiting Israeli companies from selling a product to a hostile state could have sunk the plan.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was called to authorize the deal and did so, noting that the world’s best-selling water purification tablets would not be sold directly to Syria but rather to the UN agency.

Humanitarianism trumps politics

The Israeli law drafted in 1939 forbids Israeli companies from knowingly selling products that will benefit an enemy state. According to a report in Calcalist, the government must authorize all business agreements between Israel and enemy nations.

The Israeli business daily reported that while this is not the first time the government has okayed such a transaction, it is unusual.

But as Israel is known for its humanitarian efforts around the globe, obtaining special authorization and waiving the law for the water purification deal was more a formality than an anomaly.

The AquaTabs are effervescent tablets that kill micro-organisms in water to prevent cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. The chlorine pills are considered a better alternative to boiling water to remove contaminants.

“UNICEF is urgently scaling up its emergency response to reach hundreds of thousands of children with child protection, water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition, and education initiatives,” according to a UNICEF statement.

According to the UN about 1.2 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries. The UN also estimates that there are another one million Syrians still living in their homes in need of humanitarian aid.

Israel files complaint with U.N. over Gaza phosphorus

The head of a regional council in southern Israel filed a complaint with the United Nations after mortar shells fired from Gaza were found to contain the banned substance white phosphorous.

Two mortars that landed in the Eshkol Regional Council, with a population of 13,000, contained white phosphorous, which is banned by international law for use in populated areas. Phosphorus can cause severe burns and other injuries.

It reportedly was the fourth time that white phosphorus has been found on mortars fired from Gaza on Israel.

The complaint by Chaim Jelin was filed with U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Jelin wrote, “The Israel Defense Forces, charged with protecting the residents of the State of Israel, are criticized and judged due to their being the military of a U.N. member state. In contrast, Hamas, the ‘neighborhood bully,’ is not subject to international laws, and feels free to use illegal weaponry against an innocent civilian population—without being judged or criticized by any international body. I call upon you to put an end to this hypocrisy!”

Contaminant Fouls Well at Brandeis

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has instructed Boeing to determine if high levels of a contaminant used in rocket fuel and found on property owned by the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) came from the company’s Rocketdyne testing site located nearly a mile away.

Perchlorate, a predominately man-made chemical used to make solid-fuel propellants for rockets, missiles and fireworks, was first detected at the Jewish retreat center in water samples taken by the Ventura County Water Department during a surprise spot check in late February. The samples, taken from the Bathtub No. 1 well, located in the southeastern part of the institute, revealed a contaminant level of 82 parts per billion — more than 20 times higher than the state action level for perchlorate in drinking water (4 ppb).

While the well has never been used for drinking water, according to Brandeis leaders, further sampling conducted by DTSC over the past few months — including samples taken from the same well on May 30 indicating a level of 140 ppb and 150 ppb, and samples on June 11 with 39 ppb and 36 ppb — prompted the state agency to launch an investigation.

According to a letter sent by DTSC to Boeing on June 23, the company has until Aug. 18 to develop a work plan describing measures to be taken to investigate the potential migration of perchlorate contamination from its Santa Susana field laboratory to offsite areas, such as the Brandeis-Bardin property.

Specifically, the company will be required to install new wells, retrofit existing wells, review all existing hydrology data, assess available remediation technologies and conduct detailed geologic mapping and aerial photography.

"There are two possible ways we’re looking at that perchlorate could have left the [Rocketdyne] site," said David Bacharowski, of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. "One is surface water runoff, and the other is groundwater moving away from the property."

Bacharowski noted that perchlorate can be found in anything from matches to car airbags. He said that human exposure to the chemical affects the iodine absorption in the thyroid gland, which is particularly dangerous to fetuses.

Rocketdyne officials said they were surprised by the discovery, because they have been monitoring Bathtub No. 1, in addition to 10 other wells on the Brandeis property, as part of their groundwater testing program for the past six years.

"It’s a new piece of data, and the wells between our site and this particular well have always remained clean," said Blythe Jameson, spokesperson at Rocketdyne’s environmental communications office. "It’s inconsistent with everything we’ve seen."

This is not the first time that Rocketdyne and its Jewish neighbor have had a problem involving water. In 1997, Boeing settled a BBI lawsuit that accused the aerospace firm of letting its research into rocket engines and nuclear reactors foul the groundwater, ultimately lowering the institute’s property value.

BBI leaders said it is premature to consider pressing charges and that their primary focus is on the health and safety of campers and staff. The well sites have been fenced off from campers and livestock and the institute does not use its well water for any purpose. All drinking water at BBI and throughout Simi Valley comes from a metropolitan water supply.

Parents have been educated about the wells and do not seem very concerned about the recent perchlorate discovery, according to Ivan Wolkind, BBI operations director.

"I was surprised at how few parent calls we received," Wolkind said. "I think that a lot of parents here know about this particular well."

Wolkind said the institute has had a long-standing relationship with the water board, and that he plans to cooperate with a request from the agency requiring the institute to submit a technical report containing historical and current information about the site. According to the June 23 letter, the report will be "used to determine if site-specific source[s] of the groundwater pollution exist at [the] site."

Helen Zukin, Brandeis board chair, discounted any suggestion that the chemical is a product of materials used at the camp.

"Those wells are being tested on a regular basis by DTSC, and what they find periodically is always some byproduct of what Rocketdyne has been doing, but Brandeis is unaffected," Zukin said.

She said the water situation will not deter the institute’s recent plans for expansion, including current efforts between Brandeis and the National Center for Jewish Environmental and Nature Education to convert one of the canyons on the property into a self-contained learning environment.

In addition to BBI, perchlorate was also found at three or four other Simi Valley wells not used for drinking water supplies. Water board officials said that all the wells are adjacent to gasoline stations, and that the contamination can probably be linked to leaky underground storage tanks.

The agency will conduct ongoing testing throughout Simi Valley, and wells at BBI will now be monitored on a quarterly basis.

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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