Israel’s English-language papers seemed relieved that jaw-jaw is over and war-war has started. The editorial in Friday’s Jerusalem Post began, “The interminable wait is over.” Elsewhere in the paper, an op-ed by Saul Singer strove to put the outbreak of war in the context of recent history: “September 11 and March 20 were both about changing the psychology of the world: the former to pound it into fear and submission, the latter to inculcate the same dread into the terror network itself.” He concluded:
The meaning of March 20 is that the United States is willing to defy an interpretation of international law that protects rogue regimes at the expense of their victims. Terrorism has been a way for these regimes to go under the radar screen of international law, with the purpose of overturning the world order. America has just lowered this radar screen and said: We will not let you overturn our order, we will overturn yours.
Naturally, security was at the top of the Israeli papers’ agenda. Early Friday morning, Ha’aretz reported that a “large U.S. force is operating in western Iraq in a bid to prevent any Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel.” Because of its proximity and its role as the launching point for the 39 Scuds that were fired at Israel during the first Gulf War, western Iraq is viewed as Israel’s “danger zone.” In contrast to 1991, when officials declared they would retaliate “with a resounding blow” if Israel came under fire, this time around the government is sticking to what the Jerusalem Post described as “a single, deliberately vague mantra: ‘If Israel is attacked, it will be capable of defending itself.’ “
On the home front, Israelis were told Wednesday to open their gas mask kits, try on their masks, and keep them to hand. (The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel’s 300,000 “migrant workers” were the last to receive their kits because distribution was interrupted when it was discovered that many non-citizens had received outdated masks. “An IDF source confirmed the accusation but said that the migrants were given older masks due to the fact that the IDF expects few of the masks to be returned.”) Ha’aretz complained there were internal contradictions in the official instructions: “The decision makers believed the chances were practically nil that Israel would be hit by chemical or biological weapons. But they instructed the public to behave as if an Iraqi attack with such weaponry was imminent. If there was a foundation to the original assessment, then there was no point to the directives.” All they succeeded in doing was intensifying the sense of distress and anxiety.
A commentary in Yediot Ahronot said Israelis stocked up on water and room-sealing materials not out of panic, but “with a measure of skepticism, as if conducting a kind of ritual, which everyone who belongs to the strange group of people who live in this country has to go through from time to time. … A nation whose sons are killed everyday guarding illegal settlements, whose citizens are harassed by daily firing of Qassam rockets and for whom there is no place across the length and breadth of the country in which they can relax, does not make a big deal of a war in which the chances of being hurt are negligible.” (Translation courtesy of the Lebanon Daily Star’s “Israeli Press Review.”)
Although schools re-opened Thursday after a three-day break for the Purim holiday, the Jerusalem Post said “a good 60 percent” of pupils stayed home “for fear they would not be protected enough should Iraq unleash an attack during the day.” Israel’s air defenses are on high alert, and according to “military sources,” Israel “will have a window of five minutes to destroy a Scud missile between when it is launched and hits the ground. The public will be given a warning of about 3.5 minutes to put on their masks and find the nearest bomb-shelter or sealed room.” Ha’aretz reported that hoteliers in Eilat have been disappointed that Israelis are not “thronging” to the southern resort. “So far, most Israelis apparently feel safe at home and the stream of those fleeing to Eilat that began on Wednesday, dwindled to the regular Thursday trickle.”