TEL AVIV, JAN. 27 -- The Israeli cabinet reaffirmed today the government's policy of postponing any military action against Iraq despite repeated missile attacks on the country, officials said.
At the same time, government officials expressed concern that Iraq would soon seek to escalate the war by trying to use nonconventional weapons against Israel. Israeli and U.S. technicians rushed to set up more Patriot missile batteries around the country to defend against attacks and tried to reduce the danger of missile fragments falling on populated areas.
As night fell in Tel Aviv, highways out of the city were jammed with cars as much of the city's population of 350,000 sought refuge from the missile barrages that have jarred the metropolis on six of nine nights. On the road east to Jerusalem, traffic was clogged for 20 miles from the city center. Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahad condemned those fleeing as "deserters," but authorities have done nothing to discourage the growing nightly exodus.
High schools reopened around Israel today, but most shops and normally bustling cafes in downtown Tel Aviv shut down at dusk. One exception was the "Cafe Baghdad," a popular bar that defied its name by continuing to serve a handful of regulars.
The jammed roads were one of several indications that the repeated attacks are starting to wear down Israeli morale. Several prominent media commentators called for drastic U.S. or Israeli action to stop the missile launchings from western Iraq, and officials said state television and radio stations received calls demanding Israeli retaliation.
"How much longer can we take this?" said Naomi, a mother of two who lives on a street hit by a missile, in an interview with the newspaper Hadashot published today. "I'm not talking about damage from the missiles -- a few tiles from the roof went flying, some windows were broken, everything can be repaired -- but this tension is breaking us."
Four Israelis have died, two of heart attacks, in missile attacks, 204 have been injured, and about 4,000 have been made homeless. For more than a week, several hard-line members of the Israeli cabinet have been pressing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to order Israel's own powerful air force into action against Iraq, despite the danger of widening the war or interfering with U.S. and allied forces.
Today, officials said, the cabinet again backed Shamir's "restraint" policy at its weekly meeting. "It was basically unanimous," said one official source. He said pressure for Israeli military action had weakened in spite of the continuing missile attacks, in part because of the political and diplomatic rewards the government appears to be reaping both at home and abroad. "This is a very united government. We are all behind the prime minister," Religious Affairs Minister Avner Shaki told Israel radio after the session.
Despite Israel's political gains, which have included the lifting of sanctions by the European Community and greatly enhanced ties with the Bush administration, government leaders continue to hold a sober view of the course of the war, officials said. According to the latest assessment by the Israeli army given to the government, one official said, "there are no signs of an Iraqi collapse, though the escalation of their rhetoric recently suggests that they are getting more desperate."
Over the weekend, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein renewed his threat to use nonconventional weapons against Israel, and senior officials here say they are seriously concerned about the possibility of a chemical or biological weapons attack. "So far, he has done everything that he said he was going to do," said one official, "and so we are taking this very seriously. By the way, that alone is a victory for Saddam -- that he is being seen to deliver on his promises."
Sources said Israel has tentatively concluded that the Iraqi missiles being fired at the country include the al-Abbas, a new Iraqi improvement on the Soviet Scud that has a much longer range than the earlier, al-Husseini version. The Israeli conclusion, sources said, is based in part on monitoring of an Iraqi test shortly before the war in which a modified Scud traveled some 450 miles, nearly 100 miles beyond the previous maximum range of Iraqi Scuds.
If the al-Abbas has been deployed, officials here said, it would mean that Iraq would have the ability to strike at Israel from sites considerably farther east than was believed before the war, and could explain in part the difficulties allied forces have had in finding and knocking out Scud launchers.