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Sharon Downplays Risk of Iraqi Attack on Israel - 2003-03-19

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says there is little chance his country will be hit by an Iraqi attack during a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Israeli preparations include a continuing closure of the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Sharon chaired a cabinet meeting Wednesday. He told reporters beforehand that Israel is ready for any eventuality, even though the actual threat is minimal.

Mr. Sharon said that even if the risk of attack is only one percent, Israel has prepared 100 percent.

Israel has called up an additional 12,000 reservists, especially units serving in anti-aircraft defense and the Home Front Command, which deals with civilian security during war time.

Israel's air force has raised its alert level and is patrolling the skies 24 hours a day. Soldiers have been ordered to carry gas masks with them at all times, and the military has taken over a television channel to broadcast public service announcements and safety instructions.

Israelis have been told to prepare safe rooms, sealed with plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect against a possible chemical or biological attack by Iraq.

At the same time, daily life seems mostly normal. Schools, government offices and businesses are expected to remain open after war starts.

Mr. Sharon told his cabinet ministers that some groups might try to stage terrorist attacks against Israel while attention is focused on Iraq. He also said Israel would continue its operations against suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks the Israeli military has stepped up security sweeps and attacks in the territories.

Palestinian medical relief and human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti says he fears that with world attention focused on Iraq, the Israeli military will use the opportunity to crack down even harder.

"It is very dangerous, there is so much, such a horrible upscale of attacks in certain places," said Dr. Barghouti. "We are practically losing 10 people every day, on every attack. Many of them, most of them are civilians, many are children. It is very dangerous, and we are very worried that there is distraction of the media from what's happening in the occupied territories."

Israel has also extended a complete closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until Sunday. Israel closed off the Palestinian territories last Sunday in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Palestinians will not be able to come into Israel from the West Bank or Gaza until the order is lifted.

Since the Palestinian uprising began 30 months ago, the Israeli military has imposed a variety of curfews and travel restrictions on Palestinians.

Dr. Barghouti said the continued closure will be devastating. "We already have 75 percent of the population living below the line of poverty," he noted. "So a curfew which is imposed on all the territories will simply kill the economy."

Palestinians are reported stocking up on food and fuel to prepare for what many fear will be an extended curfew once the war starts.