JERUSALEM, JAN. 11 -- The U.S. Embassy in Israel recommended today that tens of thousands of Americans living here consider leaving because of the growing danger of a Persian Gulf war that could spill over into Israel.
The embassy said it had authorized more than 200 dependents of its U.S. employees to leave at government expense. Officials said the evacuation is voluntary, and they were not sure how many would leave.
The U.S. advisory followed similar recommendations to foreigners living in Israel by several West European countries, and added to a growing list of countries in Africa and the Middle East that the State Department has said may be unsafe for Americans.
The scope of the evacuation recommended here is potentially large. U.S. Embassy spokesman Don Cofman said there are between 70,000 and 100,000 U.S. passport holders in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Cofman noted, however, that many of the Americans are dual passport holders who are also Israeli citizens or Palestinians. Most of these citizens are unlikely to heed the U.S. advisory, officials said.
In the last five days, foreigners and some Israelis have packed the country's Ben Gurion International Airport to travel abroad before Tuesday, the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq repeatedly has threatened to attack Israel in the event the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf launches an offensive against its forces in Kuwait.
The crush has been made greater by the decision of more than a half-dozen airlines to cancel flights to Israel because of increased insurance costs. The airlines include Pan Am, one of three U.S. carriers operating here. Travel agents say no seats are now available on flights out of the country before Tuesday.
Airport terminals in Amman, Riyadh and Cairo also were jammed with students, tourists and expatriate workers trying to leave the region before the U.N. deadline, special correspondent John Arundel reported from Cairo. People trying to leave were offering $500 and more for tickets and reservations held by passengers booked on outgoing jets.
Israeli leaders, including President Chaim Herzog, have expressed irritation at the stampede of foreigners to leave the country, saying the rush is unjustified. Today, however, a senior aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir expressed understanding at the U.S. advisory. Although it was not "a necessary step," said the spokesman, Yossi Achimeir, "we can understand it. It is recommended to the public to be prepared."
Embassy spokesman Cofman said the advisory was being issued "because of the increased tensions in the area due to Iraq's failure to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions." The advisory said Iraq's stance "may lead to demonstrations, terrorist attacks and other hostile actions against the United States government and U.S. citizens in the area."
The State Department said today that it has taken steps to ensure continued insurance coverage for U.S. airlines so that their planes would keep flying to the areas where evacuation has been ordered or recommended.
Israeli military authorities have said it is likely that Iraq will attack Israel with medium-range missiles in the event of war, and concede that some missiles could land in Israel with conventional or chemical warheads. Since Thursday, the army has been conducting a campaign on radio and television to educate the Israeli public on how to prepare for a possible attack.
The army has already issued about 3 million chemical warfare kits including gas masks to Israelis, and will begin Sunday distributing another 1 million sets to citizens living in rural areas of the country. Foreigners with visas of more than six months are also being offered the kits, but tourists and Palestinians living in the occupied territories have been excluded so far.
Arundel reported the following from Cairo:
Officials of several U.S. companies with operations in the Middle East said they were having difficulty finding replacements for workers who had flown back to the United States. "Three of our men just left unexcused and we haven't found anyone else within the company to replace them," said an oil engineer for a Houston-based drilling company. "And we have about 40,000 employees in the company. No one volunteered to come."
January is normally the peak season for tourists in Egypt and Israel, but the gulf crisis has brought tourism to a halt. Travel agents and hotel managers said occupancy rates and attendance at historic sites are down by as much as 90 percent. Tour buses to holy sites in Jerusalem are going largely unfilled and guides at the entrance to the Great Pyramids of Giza are begging for business.
"Common sense dictates that this will not be a safe place to be after the 15th," said Michael Clark of Utica, N.Y., a U.S. Army transport supervisor who was waiting for a flight to Singapore Thursday at Cairo International Airport.