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Israel Keeping Low Profile During Iraq War - 2003-03-20

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received advance warning of the early morning strike against Baghdad, but Israeli officials say Israel plans to keep a low profile in a war that is not its own. Israelis began the day normally, but many carried their gas masks just in case of an Iraqi retaliatory strike.

Senior officials here say Prime Minister Sharon received a 90-minute advance warning that the first strike was about to take place.

The official government spokesman on Iraq, Major General Amos Gilad, said Israel has no active role to play. And Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel intends to keep a low profile and not get involved in this war.

The Israeli government has been highly supportive of President Bush's campaign against Iraq, dubbing it an important part of the global war on terrorism. But officials also know Washington wants Israel to keep a low profile so as not to enflame Arab anger about the war.

In an appearance on Iraqi television shortly after the first strike on Baghdad, Saddam Hussein again linked the U.S. led war against his country with the struggle of the Palestinians against Israel. And that strikes a chord among Arabs throughout the region. Most distrust American motives for the war against Iraq and are quick to criticize American support of Israel, which many say comes at the expense of the Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq sent 39 Scuds armed with conventional warheads, toward Israel causing some damage, but few casualties. Israel did not retaliate.

This time around Israelis fear Saddam Hussein might try to strike Israel with chemical or biological weapons. Officials have said the risk of an Iraqi strike is minimal, but they have urged the population to take necessary precautions all the same. The Israeli government has reserved the right to retaliate against any Iraqi attack, but has not specified under what circumstances it would do so.

Most Israelis began their day normally, but many, including school children, also carried their gas masks just in case of an Iraqi retaliatory strike. Many others ignored the precaution, saying there is a greater risk of being killed or injured in an attack by Palestinian militants than by an Iraqi Scud missile.

In recent weeks Israeli forces have stepped up their security sweeps and attacks in the Palestinian territories. And Israel has extended a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip until further notice. But the general situation in Palestinian cities and towns is reported as calm.

In the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun hundreds of Palestinians, mostly schoolchildren, staged a brief rally in support of Saddam Hussein early Thursday. Some carried signs, reading "Death to America, death to Bush."

The militant Islamic group Hamas has said it would continue its fight against Israel, but a Hamas spokesman said the group had no intention of targeting Americans.