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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 20:15 GMT
Palestinians 'must be given gas masks'
Israeli schoolchildren put on gas masks during an exercise
Israelis have access to gas masks
Israeli human rights activists are seeking a court order to force the government to provide gas masks for Palestinians in the event of war against Iraq.

The Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights - a non-partisan group - told the Supreme Court that as Israel had re-taken control of most Palestinian areas, it was again responsible for the welfare of their inhabitants.

Aftermath of missile attack on Israel
The Scuds which hit Israel in 1991 had conventional warheads

Gas masks were first distributed to Israelis as a precaution against chemical attack in the 1991 Gulf War, during which Iraq fired more than 30 Scud missiles at Israel.

Although the Supreme Court ordered the government to issue Palestinians with masks then, only a fraction of the population had been supplied by the time the missiles hit.

Israel has been stepping up preparations against a possible missile strike by Iraq, although officials believe the probability of such action is low.

There has been no comment so far on the court petition from defence officials.

"Occupied territories"

Physicians for Human Rights said the Israeli Government should distribute gas masks free of charge to "every resident of the occupied territories".

The Israeli army has said it would provide 60,000 masks to Palestinians in West Bank areas which, according to interim peace accords, are under total Israeli control.

Radar for new missile battery in northern Israel
Israel has also been boosting missile defences

Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement that it was joined in the petition by the Palestinian Red Crescent.

More than three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel re-established direct control over West Bank cities last June in the wake of suicide attacks.

The group also said it was pressing for Israel to make gas masks available to foreign workers and their families, and to distribute gas masks and build shelters in Bedouin towns that are not officially recognised by the state of Israel.


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