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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March, 2003, 17:57 GMT
Palestinians unfazed by Israeli Scud fears
By Ken Lee
In Gaza City

As the first Scud missiles hurtled toward Israel in the Gulf War back in January 1991, Hamouda Hassan prepared for the worst. Would they be tipped with biological or chemical warheads?

Like most Palestinians in the occupied territories, Hassan's family was not supplied with a single gas mask or chemical warfare kit.

Yussef Abdel Hamid al-Mimi shows different types of gas masks at a pharmacy in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Palestinian pharmacists report low take-up of gas masks

The only thing he could do, like everyone else in the region, was tape sheets of heavy plastic over the windows inside his home and tuck moistened towels under the doorways.

As Israeli TV blared a siren warning of the incoming rockets, 22 members of his extended family crammed into one room stockpiled with canned food.

"The hours after the first missile hit were especially tense," the 48-year-old public healthcare worker says.

"We started getting paranoid. One of us thought he smelled gas, another thought the water tasted funny, another said he felt a tingling sensation in his body. But after two hours of this, we realised our minds were playing tricks on us and we were okay."

'Nothing to lose'

With another war on Iraq seemingly imminent, Israel is bracing itself for potential disaster - mindful of the 39 Scuds that crashed within its borders more than a decade ago.

Thousands of gas masks have been issued and many Israelis are readying their vault-like sealed rooms - a requirement of every home constructed after the Gulf War.

According to Major General Yusef Mishlav of Israel's Home Front Command, more than 90% of the population now has functioning chemical warfare kits in their homes.

Sharon's missiles are worse than Saddam's, and we get those all the time
Hamouda Hassan

But this time around, Hassan is taking a decidedly different approach.

"Prepare for what?" he says, sitting in his ramshackle three-bedroom Gaza City home.

"Nobody cares. At least during the Gulf War our people had jobs and income. Now we have Israeli rockets bombarding us, F-16s and bulldozers wrecking our homes. So what do we have to lose? Sharon's missiles are worse than Saddam's, and we get those all the time."

Such apathy is reflective of many in Gaza and the West Bank, embittered by more than two years of violence.

Talk of a Scud threat has been largely ignored by the Palestinian media as well.

"Most Palestinians don't believe there will be a biochemical attack, they think it's a far-fetched scenario," says Hossam Sharkawi, national emergency response co-ordinator of the Ramallah-based Red Crescent.

An Israeli Arab woman leaves a gas mask distribution centre with several gas mask kits at a mall in Jerusalem
Israeli Arabs have access to free masks from a distribution centre

"No one is sealing their rooms like they did in the Gulf War. Some are stocking food supplies, not out of fear of Scuds, but what Israel might do in the context of another war.

"Specifically, that means blanket curfews and even mass displacement all the way to Jordan. In Gaza, there's a widespread belief that Israel will use the Iraq war as a cover to completely reoccupy it."

Mr Sharkawi adds that even if there is a non-conventional attack, his organisation lacks the resources to purchase expensive decontamination suits and other specialised rescue apparatus.

Resources sapped

Last month, the Israeli High Court denied a joint demand by his organisation and the Tel Aviv-based Physicians for Human Rights to supply Palestinians with free gas masks.

As civilians effectively living under military re-occupation, they argued, Palestinians should be afforded the right to such protective gear in compliance with international law.

Israeli soldiers wear their gas masks and chemical suits during a training session
More than 90% of the Israeli population now has functioning chemical warfare kits

"The fact that the [Israeli] army enters Nablus or Ramallah from time to time does not turn the Palestinian population into Israel's responsibility," Justice Eliahu Mazza ruled.

That duty, the court indicated, falls squarely at the feet of Yasser Arafat and his government as stipulated by the 1993 Oslo Accords.

But Dr Marwan al-Zaiem, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority's ministry of health, insists the intifada has sapped the PA's energy, time and resources.

"We don't have the capability to make a single preparation for such an attack," he says.

"The political situation is so bad now that people can't tell the difference between life and death, so nobody acts."

Israel has faced this moral predicament before. Just days before Scuds were fired in the Gulf War, a West Bank resident filed a petition demanding mass distribution of gas masks to Palestinians.

But Israeli military officials feared that would only protect rioting Palestinians, already three years into the first intifada, against tear gas. But the Israeli High Court ruled in favour of the plea.

In the end, however, only about 50,000 masks were reportedly distributed to the Palestinian population of 1.7 million at the time.

Distribution was hampered by the military curfew placed on the territories soon after America dropped the first bombs on Baghdad.

The issue resurfaced when fears of an Iraqi missile attack flared again in 1998.

Nonetheless, if Saddam does adhere to a scorched-earth strategy, he may very well fire biochemical warheads atop the notoriously inaccurate Scuds.

If one of them happens to land in the West Bank or Gaza, Palestinians will undoubtedly face, as Tarawa detachedly puts it, "mass casualities over a prolonged period of days".

That does not appear to bother people like Hessian, who evokes God as his only protection, and paradoxically, his only fear.

"Scuds?" he says. "I don't care. They are welcome."

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