Scuds, Wine, and Cheese

A Town Prepares for Attack

JAFFA—The Patriots are coming. I know because bulldozers are hard at work just down the road, flattening a huge field on the cliff overlooking the sea.

It was a nice place to take a stroll . . . in broad daylight. The big piles of construction rubble, covered with wildflowers, made it a perfect spot for neighborhood kids to hang out, smoke dope, and sell stolen car radios. No more. Now the place looks like a parking lot.

The authorities put yellow tape across the entry paths. That lasted about five minutes, but there will probably be guards once the Patriots actually arrive.

Patriot missiles were deployed on the same cliff during previous Saddam scares, so we probably won't run over there to picnic and gawk like we did last time.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Al Hussein Scuds in 19 salvos at Israel and we fired a whole bunch of Patriot missiles at the incoming Scuds.

The Iraqi attacks were blamed for 13 deaths here. Seven people died from what is vaguely termed "an incorrect use of gas masks," four people suffered heart attacks when the warning sirens blared, and two were designated "direct" casualties. The Israeli Defense Forces say the Scuds were responsible for damage to 332 homes, 6142 apartments, 23 public buildings, 200 stores, and 50 cars, mostly in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The Patriots, a gift from Washington, were hardly a resounding success in 1991. Reportedly, not one of them hit its mark, and cynics believe that much of the destruction blamed on the Scuds was actually inflicted by big chunks of the Patriots falling to earth. We'll never know. Israeli officials are diplomatic about it and will only say that the Patriots were basically "ineffective.”

So it's no wonder that my neighbors would prefer to have those new Arrow missiles that the military brags scored 100 percent in recent tests. The Arrows are being deployed around the country, but our town, Jaffa, isn't upscale enough to warrant the top of the line.

It's unlikely Israel will see any real action during the supposedly upcoming war against Iraq. But that doesn't stop us from relishing a feverish panic and reveling in all the attention we're getting.

My inbox is loaded with e-mails from family and friends frantically urging me to spend the next few months in New York, Paris, Rome, or Parsippany, New Jersey. No way. The temperature in Jaffa rarely dips below 70 degrees, even in February. I don't think Parsippany can make the same boast, and I've seen New York's arctic landscape on television.

But if you believe the travel agents, tens of thousands of Israelis are planning to hightail it out of here the moment the war begins. Exploiting the fear that Israel's airspace will be temporarily closed, some travel agencies are offering guaranteed seats on the last planes out if you put up a $50 deposit now. There are plenty of takers.

In playgrounds across the country, frazzled young mamas anxiously scan the skies for the first Scud and giggle over plans to escape with the kids to a hotel in Cyprus with room service and free babysitters.

Foreign diplomats keep their faces diplomatically grim when faced with reports that entire embassies will be evacuated to five-star hotels in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Israel's answer to Miami Beach. The American School, attended mainly by the children of diplomats, closed its doors for spring break . . . about two months early.

Several high-tech firms reportedly have made lists of their most valuable scientists and engineers—so they can wing them out of the country the minute the first barrage is fired. It'll be great for employee morale when the majority of workers find out they are not on the flight manifest.

Big manufacturers are stockpiling inventories abroad and even preparing alternate production sites in safe havens like China and Minnesota. Some workers grumble they would rather face Scuds than the sub-zero temperatures in those places.

The war hysteria has not given the economy a boost, but some companies are making out like bandits as people hoard water, disposable diapers, satellite phones, red wine, aspirin, plastic sheeting, duct tape, and airline tickets.

Those of us who plan to stay have cleaned out our bomb shelters. Mine is only about four yards square, but it has a fancy machine that allegedly filters out chemical and biological gases. This has made me very popular on the street, and I expect about 80 people to arrive with the first siren.

I've agreed with my neighbors that we take turns being locked in with the kids and a stack of Barney videos. The rest of us can camp on the roof and watch the fireworks, fortified with wine and cheese. In case any of the panic propaganda is true, we'll all have our evil-looking gas masks—the ones that killed seven people during the last war.

The government estimates it will take an Iraqi Scud about six minutes to reach Israel. That should give us plenty of time to figure out how to put on the dratted masks.

The newspapers, fed by government ministers trying to deflect public attention from our latest corruption scandals, are having a heyday. There is a constant stream of screaming headlines—from threats of smallpox and plague to kamikaze pilots smashing into major cities with tank loads of nerve gas.

Now there are reports of a new menace—toy airplanes packed with explosives and operated by remote control will be launched into Jerusalem, according to the DEBKAfile. DEBKAfile, an online site featuring lots of hot spy stories, said that Palestinian toy importers have purchased hundreds of model airplanes in Europe ostensibly for distribution to hospitalized Palestinian children.

But, instead of going to the kids, the toys were converted into "miniature air bombers with explosive payloads." DEBKAfile said Yasir Arafat was absolutely "delighted" with the results of field tests of the new mini-weapon, which can whiz around for two or three minutes before crashing to the ground and blowing up.

The same story said Arafat was also considering adding "exploding cigarettes" to his anti-Israeli arsenal.

If you can believe that 170 young Palestinians have volunteered to die the horrible death of a suicide bomber, you can also accept wild tales of toy dive-bombers and exploding cigarettes.

Never a dull moment around here. At least we aren't reduced to making small talk about Joe Millionaire at our dinner parties.

Okay, I admit I've been avoiding the subject of last month's re-election of Ariel Sharon. I know you are dying to hear all the scuttlebutt, but I really do not want to talk about it.

And you can wipe that holier-than-thou smirk off your faces. You guys, after all, elected George W. Bush.

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