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Iraq Special Report

  Possibility of Iraqi Strike
Prompts Israelis to Travel

By Lee Hockstader and Ramit Plushnick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page A18

LOD, Israel, Feb. 19—Suddenly, Feb. 22 looks like the start of a great exodus from the Holy Land.

That is the date after which many Israelis have decided it may no longer be safe to stay in Israel. Frightened of the prospect of a new war in the Persian Gulf -- and the chance of Iraqi retaliation against the Jewish state -- Israelis have booked practically every airplane heading west beginning Sunday.

Some people already are leaving, a sign that a jittery public, driven by vivid memories of Iraq's Scud missile attacks in 1991, is inching toward panic.

"I'm going on a business trip to the States, and my wife doesn't want to stay here on her own with the kids with what's going on; she's scared," said Robert Hartman, a Tel Aviv investment banker in his thirties who was putting his family on a plane bound for Vienna at Ben-Gurion Airport today.

"During the [Gulf War], no one believed anything was going to happen. This time, I know anything can happen."

A few yards away, Igor Roytman and his wife Yulia, a couple in their twenties, waited in line for a flight to Moscow with their 2-year-old son, Daniel. They were taking him to his grandmother's for safekeeping. "I don't really think anything will happen," said Roytman, a computer programmer. "But just in case."

The mood here has not reached the outright terror that gripped Israel in the fearsome days of January 1991, when Iraq rained Scud missiles on coastal areas night after night. Many Israelis doubt it will come to that again.

But a survey of a half-dozen travel agents in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv suggested that airline reservations and sales for next week are 12 to 40 percent above average for late February.

Hotels in the southern resort of Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, are fielding swelling numbers of calls for reservations from Israelis, who rarely go on vacation in February.

The consular sections of the U.S. and British embassies say that the number of Israelis with dual citizenship seeking to renew their lapsed passports has just about doubled in the past couple of weeks.

"There is an increase" in people leaving the country, said Orit Rejwan, owner of Rejwan Tours in Jerusalem. "Tell Saddam to continue threatening, because it's been a long time since I've had a February like this."

In fact, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is not threatening at all. Unlike 1991, when the Iraqi leader repeatedly warned he would strike Israel -- and then made good on the threat by pummeling the country with 39 Scud missiles -- he has said he does not intend to attack the Jewish state this time.

According to unrefuted reports in the Israeli media, Baghdad sent word that it will not strike at Israel in the event of a U.S.-led air campaign against Iraq. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel sent a message back to Baghdad promising it would not attack unless provoked.

Israeli officials appear daily on television and radio to assure a tremulous citizenry that the odds of a repetition of the 1991 Iraqi missile attacks, let alone the use of biological or chemical weapons, are extremely low.

This time, Saddam has little incentive to hit Israel, say the analysts. Unlike 1991, he is not trying to break up an anti-Iraq Arab coalition, because none exists. And to launch missiles at Israel would clearly defeat one of Baghdad's own arguments -- that it has no more such weapons and that, therefore, U.N. inspections are unjustified.

Yet some Israelis are in no mood to listen to experts. Many, particularly Tel Aviv residents, have vivid, disturbing memories of the Scud attacks of 1991, which left hundreds injured and two dead. Around here, the dispassionate analyses of Saddam's strategic thinking are a non-starter; most Israelis believe he is simply insane and perfectly capable of attacking again.

That conviction has prompted Israelis to go on a buying spree in recent days, snapping up masking tape, plastic sheeting and other materials used to seal off rooms against poisonous gases and germs. Sales of candles, dried foods, canned foods and mineral water are up sharply.

Anticipating an attack, one insurance company is offering a household policy against missile damage, according to Israel radio.

Another firm is offering a two-hour crash course in biological and chemical warfare, complete with instructions for putting on a gas mask and techniques for sealing off a room and administering antidotes with a syringe, the broadcast said.

Yet another Israeli company is offering a new product for "safe rooms" that it says will absorb the shock of a missile impact.

In the past three weeks, a half-million Israelis have traded in the gas masks kits they were issued during the 1991 Gulf War for fresh ones, and 65,000 others are thronging army-run distribution centers every day.

Western embassies are maintaining a cool public face, insisting that an attack on Israel is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, in line with Israeli government recommendations to the public, the U.S. Embassy this week quietly provided its employees with material for sealing off rooms against chemical or biological weapons.

U.S. diplomats also have been instructed to cancel any personal trips to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian students have been staging pro-Iraq demonstrations. When on official business, they travel in armor-reinforced vehicles.

Some Israelis, however, prefer simply to leave. "February is usually dead, [but] because of the situation there is an increase of 20 to 25 percent" in travel bookings, said Bella Eizer, an agent at Atitrim Travel in Tel Aviv.

"Many are asking specifically for Feb. 22, and almost all the flights are full. People who were thinking of flying in March or April are now pushing it up," she said. "The destinations are London, the United States -- New York -- France. . . . Next week is a critical week."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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