JERUSALEM, AUG. 12 -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's linkage of his occupation of Kuwait to Israel's rule of the West Bank and Gaza Strip today was interpreted here as part of a mounting Iraqi campaign to draw Israel into the Persian Gulf crisis.
Israel, despite its powerful army and enmity with Iraq, has been a virtual bystander in the Middle East's latest conflict. In recent days, however, Saddam and his spokesmen have begun to broadcast charges and threats against the Jewish state, prompting growing fears here of an Iraqi attack.
Government and military spokesmen say Saddam is attempting to mobilize public opinion in the Arab world in his favor by portraying the gulf crisis as an Arab-Israeli conflict. Twice in the last week, Iraqi spokesmen have charged that Israeli forces have deployed together with American troops and planes in Saudi Arabia and threatened retaliation against Israel for any attack on Iraq.
Saddam's latest statement -- which suggested he would tie any Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and a Syrian retreat from Lebanon -- was described by Israeli spokesmen as a continuation of the same tactic.
"Saddam Hussein is trying through all kinds of exercises to do away with the international force which is confronting him, and to evade the economic sanctions which are being enforced against him," said a statement issued by Avi Pazner, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "This so-called initiative is nothing but cheap propaganda."
"What is clear here," said commentator Aharon Barnea on Israel radio, "is that Saddam is trying to involve Israel and draft the whole Arab world against Israel because he knows that the issue of Israel is the lowest common denominator in the Arab world."
Baghdad's growing focus on Israel has prompted only a modest military reaction here. According to Western reports, Israel has deployed Hawk missile antiaircraft batteries along its eastern border with Jordan and put its air force on alert to ward off any attempted Iraqi air attack. However, the army, which is heavily dependent on reserves, has not called up any units and has declined to distribute gas masks to the population as a defense against chemical warfare.
Military officials here say they doubt that Iraq will attempt an air or missile attack against Israel because of the clear advantage Israel would hold in any conflict fought on those terms. At the same time, many analysts here are concerned that Saddam may seek to provoke Israel into an attack of its own by defying the repeated public warnings of Israeli leaders against the movement of Iraqi forces into Jordan.
Israeli military strategists have "taken into consideration that Saddam Hussein may try to get himself out of the jam he's in by a provocation aimed at Israel," wrote defense correspondent Zeev Schiff in the newspaper Haaretz today. "In this way he can broaden the conflict, give it an Israeli dimension, and throw the Arab states, first of all Saudi Arabia, into confusion."
The official worries have been accompanied by nervousness among the Israeli public, especially about the danger of an Iraqi attack with chemical weapons. Popular newspapers have published extensive instructions for preparing homemade defenses against chemical agents, and specialty stores have reported brisk sales of gas masks and protective suits.
The army today moved to halt the private sale of gas masks, saying it had enough for the entire Israeli population and would distribute them if the danger of an attack rose. At the same time, an army spokesmen confirmed that authorities did not intend to give masks to the 1.7 million Palestinians in the occupied territories. "They are not targets" for attack, the spokesman said.