As war looms, Israelis play a surreal waiting game

TEL AVIV — Men clad in green-and-red rubber oxygen suits bore injured Israelis, their heads lolling off the sides of stretchers, to wailing ambulances.

It was only a police training exercise to prepare for a possible "mega-terror attack" with non-conventional weapons at Ben-Gurion Airport.

But as an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq approaches — and Israel braces for the possibility that Iraq may lash out at the Jewish state, as it did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War — Israelis are bombarded daily with images of impending hostilities. Among them are hulking Patriot missile batteries posted just off the beach in Jaffa.

Clouds of war have been hovering above the region for months, and the wait has blunted some of their power. As a result, the mood here is devoid of panic; it could even be called placid.

According to a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Israeli defense establishment actually is concerned that the public is too calm.

The official conceded that authorities have served the public an often-contradictory menu of warnings.

Sparking mild waves of panic, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, chief spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Force, announced last week that the public should begin to prepare sealed rooms and ensure that their gas masks and atropine shots — used to counter certain types of nerve gas — are in order.

Then, fearing hysteria and stampedes on hardware stores and gas-mask distribution centers, authorities seemed to backtrack. The chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, told an Israeli television station that same evening that "there are no surface-to-surface missiles in western Iraq right now," the only area from which Iraqi Scud missiles could hit Israel.

And then there was the police drill. Broadcast on all three Israeli television networks, the exercise, meant to fine tune cooperation among the several bodies that would respond to a chemical weapons attack, did little to allay public fears.

"How many times can you cry wolf?" asked Nomi Baum of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. "The first scare was in October; it passed. Then came the January deadline; it also passed, as did the new moon of early March. Israelis have simply become a little apathetic to the war."

The real stress, Baum said, comes from the country's economic malaise and the constant fear of terror attacks.

Symbolizing the surreal nature of these days of waiting, the Patriot battery in Jaffa's Ajame neighborhood has become a somewhat macabre tourist attraction.

This past Saturday, hundreds of Israelis approached the barbed wire surrounding the little base that has sprung up in this largely Arab community, trying to catch a better glimpse of the missiles and the American soldiers manning them.

Retirees Dalia and Arieh Amir strolled about a sandbank overlooking the batteries, holding hands. The couple, now sexagenarians, fell in love in this neighborhood when they were youths, and for 40 years lived just a few yards from where the missiles are now posted.

The couple marveled at the contrast between the army base that had been set up in the sand dunes and the shimmering sea behind it.

"We decided to take a little vacation to come back to the old neighborhood, and of course to visit these things," Dalia Amir said, pointing toward one of the Patriots.

Besides tourism and security, the Patriot missiles have boosted the neighborhood's flagging restaurant business. Munching on a cucumber, Atina Salame, 56, owner of the renowned Atina et Raouf fish restaurant, poked at a reporter's notebook.

"Write this down: These missiles are the best thing that has happened to us here," she said. "We served 200 meals last Saturday, more than we have since the outbreak of the intifada" more than two years ago.

Until last weekend, Jaffa's once-bustling restaurants had been desolate.

"Either they're afraid or they want to punish the Arabs after every terror attack," Salame said of Jewish customers who had stopped coming to the mixed Jewish-Arab city. Business is down by at least half from its pre-intifada peak, Salame estimated

But the missile batteries also have engendered no small amount of anxiety in the neighborhood. Peter Salame, 22, Atina's goateed nephew, feared that if the missiles are used "the explosion from their launch could shatter the entire neighborhood's windows."

"What I would really like to see," Atina Salame mused, "is people coming here because there is peace.

"If peace breaks out, it's fish on the house for a week,'' she laughed, and went back to chewing on her cucumber.