JERUSALEM -- Israel has been preparing for an Iraqi missile attack since the last Gulf War, and now says it's ready.
A state-of-the-art missile defense is in place. "Safe rooms" are standard in new homes. Teams equipped against chemical weapons and inoculated against smallpox are set to rush to attack sites. The Home Front Command has set up evacuation centers nationwide. Israelis have picked up gas masks for themselves and tents for small children.
Despite these efforts, there's an almost daily guessing game on whether Iraq can and will strike Israel.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says there's only a small threat, and government and military analysts seem confident Iraq will not be able to do what it did in 1991, when it hurled 39 Scuds at Israel - sowing panic and inflicting extensive damage, but causing few casualties.
The thinking is that Iraq has far fewer weapons now, and that U.S. forces will conduct an intensive sweep for Scuds in western Iraq, the only place from which they can reach Israel. Also, firing missiles at Israel would be proof Iraq possessed banned weapons, likely sealing Saddam Hussein's fate.
The nightmare scenario for Israelis is that a desperate Saddam might manage to fire a few missiles with chemical or biological warheads.
There are also fears that a war on Iraq could lead to a different sort of attack on Israel - by plane, or rockets fired by Hezbollah militiamen in south Lebanon, or a massive attack by Palestinian or al-Qaida terrorists.
"There is a danger. I assess it as a minor danger, but it exists," Sharon said last week. "We have prepared the best possible solutions."
Martin van Creweld, a military analyst and historian, agrees the threat is low. "But with weapons of mass destruction, it only takes one. It becomes a question of luck," he said.
The Arrow, the first fully deployed anti-missile system in the world, is the centerpiece of Israel's defenses against Scuds. Israel and the United States have spent more than $2 billion to develop the Arrow, and tests have been encouraging though it has yet to face an actual enemy missile. Two batteries - one in northern Israel and a second south of Tel Aviv - are placed to protect the heavily populated coastal strip, the target for all the Scuds last time around.
In the 1991 Gulf War, the Patriot anti-missile system built by the United States was largely ineffectual against Scuds. It has since been upgraded and will be used as a backup defense.
The Arrow is designed to intercept incoming missiles still high in flight; in theory, the Arrow would obliterate Scuds over Jordan before they reach Israeli airspace.
By contrast, the Patriot attempts to intercept a missile only during the final stage of flight. U.S. troops have been working with Israeli forces to set up and test Patriot batteries, which have been deployed to protect sensitive sites, such as the Dimona nuclear reactor in southern Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli civilians have been exchanging old gas masks for upgraded ones. For children too small to wear masks, miniature tents have been built to guard against chemicals.
Since the Gulf War, new homes and apartments in Israel have been required to have sealed safe rooms that would offer at least a few hours of protection.
In addition, the Health Ministry has inoculated up to 20,000 medical and rescue workers against smallpox, and other Israelis have sought out shots on their own.
When Scuds came crashing down last time, some Israelis living in the targeted coastal cities, such as Tel Aviv, fled inland. They holed up with relatives or stayed in hotels in places such as Jerusalem, an unlikely target because of its large Arab population and Islamic holy sites.
Some Israelis have made precautionary hotel bookings, but there's been no recent exodus from coastal cities.
In a region that's seen daily violence for more than two years, including almost 90 Palestinian suicide bombings, most Israelis have learned to live with the threat of attacks.
Instead of offering soothing words, many government officials prefer to lay out what they believe is the worst-case scenario, and since November, senior security figures have predicted an imminent war in Iraq on several occasions.
The latest forecast came from army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who said last week that he expected a U.S. bombing campaign to start within weeks.
That contributed to long lines at some gas mask centers, and a surge of shoppers at hardware stores. The government imposed price controls on items such as plastic sheeting, duct tape and bottled water to prevent price-gouging.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel refrained from responding to the 1991 Scud attacks, and Sharon can expect similar arm-twisting this time. Sharon, who places great value on his good relations with President Bush, has said Israel will protect itself, but he has been intentionally vague about how.
There has been some Israeli speculation about whether Israel might respond to a devastating Iraqi attack with nuclear weapons. Israel refuses to confirm or deny having nuclear weapons, but is widely believed to possess them.
Haaretz columnist Doron Rosenblum advised readers to heed the words of Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who has said his country no longer has missiles capable of hitting Israel. In 1991, he noted, Iraq threatened to attack before doing so.
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