Israel gears for defense, but calls Iraqi attack unlikely
Palestinians condemn airstrikes on IraqDecember 17, 1998
Web posted at: 10:20 a.m. EST (1520 GMT)
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli military geared up for defense against what it called the unlikely possibility of an attack by Iraq following U.S.-British airstrikes on Baghdad, while Palestinian leaders condemned the assault on Iraq and called for an emergency Arab summit to demand it be halted.
The Israeli army announced Thursday it would deploy U.S.-supplied Patriot anti-missile systems, if necessary, and urged the public to make sure they had working gas masks.
The army called the measures purely precautionary; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had no intention of joining the military action against Iraq.
Speaking several hours after the U.S.-led airstrikes on Iraq began, Netanyahu said Israel does not want to get involved in the confrontation, but reserves the right to defend itself if attacked by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We have no intention of becoming part of this conflict but we are prepared for every possibility," Netanyahu told Israel radio.
"I am not tempted to do anything. I will do whatever is required to ensure the security of the state of Israel. We will act with very great caution," Netanyahu said.
Iraq rained 39 Scud missiles on Israel in the 1991 Gulf War, killing one person and wounding scores, but has not leveled any threats against the Jewish state in the latest crisis. Israel did not retaliate against Iraq in 1991.
Israeli military commanders said Thursday that Hussein may fire missiles with chemical or biological warheads at Israel, if U.S. airstrikes bring him to the verge of collapse. However, the generals said the chances of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel are very low.
"So long as there is no tangible threat to (Hussein's) survival ... he will not attack Israel, so as not to become embroiled in another front," said Israeli Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, the head of research in Military Intelligence.
"But if he is on the brink of extinction, he certainly may take suicidal steps involving the launching of a few missiles against Israel," Gilad said.
Gilad said that in spite of Iraq's denials, it still possesses a few missile launchers, several dozen missiles and chemical-warfare capability.
Israel is much better prepared to deal with an Iraqi missile attack than it was in 1991, a defense official said.
"Today we have a satellite terminal which enables us to receive early warning in a much shorter time, and we are linked directly to the American radar," said Avi Benayahu, adviser to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
The radar system of the Arrow anti-missile missile, which Israel is developing, is operational, Benayahu told Israel radio. The system, code-named Green Pine, is capable of tracking a ballistic missile in flight, he said.
Netanyahu said U.S. President Bill Clinton talked to him about the situation in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday and raised the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq as he learned that Iraq was not cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors.
At the time, Netanyahu was standing with Clinton on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport, waiting to see him off at the end of Clinton's peace-bridging mission to Israel and Palestinian areas.
"He told me that he was about to get a very difficult report by (chief U.N. weapons inspector) Richard Butler on Iraq's failure to fulfill its commitments, and that it apparently would obligate him to act," Netanyahu said of his conversation with Clinton.
Palestinian leaders condemned the U.S.-led assault, and Clinton appeared to have lost much of the popular goodwill he won on landmark visits to Palestinian-ruled Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem this week.
The already fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process appeared further weakened as Palestinians reacted bitterly against the attack on Iraq.
In the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Hebron, Palestinian police moved quickly to break up dozens of Palestinian teen- agers who threw stones at Israeli troops. Only two days earlier, Clinton had sung along with a Palestinian children's choir in Manger Square in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The largest pro-Iraq rally was held in the West Bank town of Nablus, where about 3,000 Palestinians took to the streets, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Clinton."
Protesters burned a dozen U.S. flags, including those that had been distributed by the Palestinian Authority several days earlier to cheer the arrival of Clinton in Gaza and Bethlehem.
"Two days ago, Clinton was here and we though he carried a message of peace," said Majeda Masri, a teen-age marcher. "But now it is clear that he is a murderer."
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who sided with Iraq during the Gulf War but warmly received Clinton during his visit this week, avoided comment on the latest pounding of Iraq.
The Palestinian Authority called for an emergency Arab summit to demand an immediate halt to the strikes.
"We condemn this unjustifiable attack on Iraq and appeal for Arab countries to convene an urgent summit ... to call without delay for a halt to the attacks," said Ahmed abdel- Rahman, general secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet.Correspondent Jerrold Kessel, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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