Eight days into the U.S.-led war against Iraq, no Scud missiles have been fired at Israel. For Yossi Ahdut, who was tugging racks of skirts and sweaters onto the sidewalk in front of his shop in downtown Jerusalem today, that seemed reason enough to leave his gas mask at home.
"Everyone was ready, the whole country was at a high level of preparedness," said the 53-year-old father of six who outfitted his entire family with new masks before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began. "I believe that nothing will happen, because if Saddam [Hussein, the Iraqi president] could have attacked us, I'm sure that he would have."
Judging from the paltry number of pedestrians walking the streets of Jerusalem this week with their government-issued cardboard gas mask boxes slung over their shoulders, many Israelis agree.
The growing ambivalence of the Israeli public toward the potential threat that sent 39 Scud missiles smashing into Israel during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 has left the government -- which last week told Israelis to set up sealed rooms in their homes and test their gas masks -- trying to maintain a precarious balance.
"Our big dilemma is how not to panic the public, not to cry wolf too many times if there is no need," said Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, the chief spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces. "But, on the other hand, we don't want them to be too relaxed."
Yaron said anti-missile defense batteries remain on their highest alert and military authorities fear that the greatest danger could occur near the end of the war if Hussein grows desperate.
Although the clashes between Palestinians and Israelis were less intense during the first few days of the Iraqi war than at any time in recent weeks, the violence has resumed.
Seven Palestinians were killed by Israeli military forces in three separate incidents during the past 48 hours, including a 10-year-old girl shot to death by Israeli soldiers as her family drove down a Bethlehem street and a 14-year-old boy killed during street clashes in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, both on Tuesday.
Two Palestinian security officers were killed during a shootout in the Gaza Strip this morning, and three Palestinian militants died in a clash with Israeli forces in Bethlehem on Tuesday just before the young girl's car was mistakenly fired on, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
U.S. officials urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to contain confrontations with Palestinians as the U.S.-led forces launched the war against Iraq, concerned that a spike in violence here would exacerbate anti-American sentiments across the Arab world. The Israeli government is one of the strongest supporters of U.S. efforts to topple the Iraqi government. A senior Israeli official said today the military is continuing its efforts to track down alleged militants and thwart terrorist attacks in Israel, but is "very sensitive to the regional mood."
The Israeli military imposed stringent curfews and closures across the Palestinian territories the day the Iraqi war began in an effort to reduce the potential of attacks against Israel by Palestinians angered by the war, according to Israeli officials. Demonstrations against the U.S.-led attack on Iraq have been held across the West Bank and Gaza Strip all week, with more protests planned Friday after Islamic prayer services.
Palestinians said they saw parallels between their intifada, or uprising, against Israel, and the Iraq war. "The Iraqis are very brave and are motivated by defending their homeland," said Iyad Issa, 21, an art student at Bethlehem University. "I think they learned something from the Palestinians, because we have been resisting occupation . . . and we developed good tactics for others."
"The Iraqis are doing the same thing we're doing in Palestine, but they are better equipped and have better reinforcements," said Phalstin Musalam, 20, a mathematics major at the university.
Johnny Dala, 38, is a barber whose shop is located near the spot in Bethlehem where Israeli soldiers opened fire on the car in which Christine Saadeh, 10, was a passenger. He said his customers insist that the television in his barbershop stay tuned to the war news, "because they identify with what they see. What's going on in Iraq is a familiar picture."
Anderson reported from Bethlehem.