Israel admits danger of missile attack


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceded yesterday that Israeli civilians do face "a danger" from a possible Iraqi missile attack, and health officials said a decision would soon be taken on whether to inoculate the whole population against smallpox.

But Mr Sharon, who was a spectator at an exercise at a Home Front command centre near Tel Aviv yesterday, in which emergency workers practised neutralising a chemical warhead, said the country was prepared for any Iraqi strike. "We have to tell the truth, that a danger does exist," he said. "But we have taken all the measures to prevent it."

Israel has stepped up preparations for a possible Gulf War since the US dismissed Iraq's arms declaration last week as a "material breach" of the UN resolution calling for Saddam Hussein to disarm. The army and emergency and health workers have been engaged in a series of simulation exercises recently, and students at schools have also been undergoing bomb shelter drills.

It emerged Sunday that a group of senior officers had recently participated in a "live" chemical and gas simulation exercise. The officers, from the Home Front command, were provided with gas masks and protective suits and placed in a sealed room.

Various chemical substances and poisonous gas was then pumped into the room. According to local media reports, the protective clothing and the gas masks proved completely effective.

In anticipation of a possible biological attack on Israel, government officials said yesterday a decision would soon be taken on whether to administer the smallpox vaccine to the entire country. "I think that in the end we will have no choice but to inoculate because of this sword that is hanging over us," said Dr Boaz Lev, the director-general of the Health Ministry.

About four months ago, the government decided to vaccinate some 15,000 frontline rescue workers and military personnel against smallpox, but decided not to inoculate the entire public.

There has been speculation that if the US launches a strike against Iraq, one of its priorities in the initial phase of the offensive will be to neutralise missile launchers in western Iraq, from where 39 Scud missiles were fired at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War. Mr Sharon said yesterday that the Americans were "making every effort to prevent an attack on Israel". Israel has received assurances from the US that it will be given prior warning of an American strike.