February 13, 2003 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Dear family and friends,

I did a double take this morning when I checked my e-mails. There, in black and white, was a serious request from a friend in New York asking how to seal a room against chemical and biological attacks. Maybe here in Israel we have some kind of special protective plastic sheeting for such purposes? Perhaps I could send her some?

Truth be told, I don't really know how to seal a room against non-conventional weapons. Like all Israeli citizens I have a standard gas mask issued to me by the army. I have a "mamad", a secure room in my apartment, a sort of personal bomb shelter with special rubber airtight seals on the door and window. Following the 1991 Gulf War, such rooms became obligatory in all new apartments. I'm almost done clearing the junk out of my mamad. It's the smallest room in the flat so we use it for storage.

When I told a neighbour that we're going down south for the weekend she jokingly asked whether we knew something she didn't about when the attack on Iraq will begin, that is. She wanted to know whether we'd be taking our gas masks along.

Far from Israel's main population centres, the holiday resort of Eilat at Israel's southern tip is widely held to be the safest place in the country in the event that Saddam Hussein does decide to send some missiles Israel's way, as he did in 1991. Rumour has it that the US embassy has booked a floor of the Dan Hotel there for use if Israel is attacked and the foreign diplomats clear out of Tel Aviv.

Actually, we're heading south not for safety, but for the flowers. And for the birds. And for some nice clear desert air to clear up the colds my husband and I have come down with this week.

Oh, and we're taking the opportunity to go now, before all the guesthouses are booked up by people from the Tel Aviv area fleeing Iraqi missiles.

Any minute now I'm going to get a call from a concerned relative chiding us for not panicking enough. Well yes, we do know what Iraqi Scuds can do. A cousin's apartment was nearly totalled by a missile during the last Gulf War. The residents miraculously escaped harm.

On the other hand I'm personally more concerned with what our devoted Palestinian neighbours are up to. The country is currently on high alert due to a large number of terror warnings. In recent days a number of bombers have been caught en route to Israeli towns. They are certainly a more imminent danger than the possibility of Iraqi missiles.

The Israeli media, though, have been playing up Iraq-related scare stories for months now. They portray us as fleeing overseas, booking up all the guesthouses in the remote southern deserts, buying up world supplies of protective clothing and plastic sheeting, installing special filter systems, hoarding food and inoculating ourselves against smallpox. Household supplies stores are hawking everything from bottled water and battery-operated radios to portable toilets and full-body chemical protection suits.

I have yet to meet anyone doing any of the above, but I guess calm or indifference doesn't sell newspapers.

Today's headlines screamed that we should start hoarding food and water from Saturday. The small print read that those would be the orders from the chief of staff if war broke out.

The papers also report that the US embassy has begun evacuating non-essential personnel and their families, and that Israel's anti-missile batteries have gone on high alert. For what it's worth, that does make war look that much closer, but then again, we've been told that war with Iraq is imminent for at least four months now.

In the meantime I'm going down south to enjoy the winter sunshine and dust storms.

Have a great weekend.

Shabbat shalom,


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Copyright 2003 by Leiah Elbaum.