TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Hundreds of Israelis fled this seaside city yesterday, fearing a repeat of the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein hurled 39 Scud missiles at Israel. Some of the less concerned chose to sun themselves and sip cocktails, saying nearly 30 months of suicide bombings and other violence have prepared them for the worst.
The Israeli government instructed people to bring gas masks with them to jobs and schools. They also were told to prepare sealed rooms.
About 2,400 families from the Tel Aviv area have reserved space in hotels and public buildings being made available in the southern town of Kiryat Gat, Army Radio reported. Eight leading hotels in the Jerusalem area reported a surge of more than 1,500 calls from Tel Aviv residents looking for rooms.
British Airways began canceling its flights to Israel on Tuesday night. Luftansa canceled its yesterday evening flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv and said it would reevaluate the situation today.
Travel agents reported an increase in reservations out of Israel and advertised cut-rate deals.
“War? We’re ready – are you?” read one travel advertisement in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “Special prices for packages in Israel and abroad, one-way and open tickets.”
In the first Gulf War, Saddam’s Scuds damaged some buildings in Israel but caused few casualties.
Israeli officials have played down the possibility of another attack, saying Saddam’s arsenal has been depleted. Israel also has two types of anti-missile systems in place – the short-range Patriot and the longer-range Arrow, developed with the United States since the 1991 Gulf War.
Israel distributes gas masks to its citizens free of charge, in kits that also have atropin injections in case nerve agents are used in an attack.
The preparations – and the daily grind – have lessened people’s fears.
“We have buses blowing up, we have car accidents and compared to what we go through every day, this is nothing,” said Gal Ganzberg, owner of a beachside pub next to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “I don’t think there’ll be chemical weapons, but maybe that’s just drunken optimism.”
Organizers of a film festival in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat said the event would still ge held as planned this weekend.
Hotels in Jerusalem were preparing their bomb shelters and advising guests a gas mask would be waiting for them in case of an attack. Most hotels have been hard-hit by a tourism slump because of the instability.
Dalit Kool, a spokeswoman for the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, received reservations from dozens of Tel Aviv residents, but “there has been no hysteria” yet. “Israelis wait until the last minute,” she said.
The Israel Students Travel Association reported a 30 percent increase in bookings for travel packages abroad, said marketing manager Ronen Carasso. The phones started ringing after President Bush issued his warning, Carasso said.
Dotan Avraham from Tel Aviv, was heading to Jerusalem to wait out the war.
“I don’t have the strength for war that I once had,” Avraham said. Avraham planned to check into the Jerusalem Gold Hotel – which changed its name to the George W. Bush Hotel to demonstrate solidarity with the president. A huge banner was placed outside.
Some foreign workers were also leaving. Although they usually fight deportation, dozens of Romanian laborers caught staying illegally in the country were asking authorities on Wednesday to book their flights out of Israel as soon as possible, Army Radio reported.
“I think he (Saddam) is crazy enough to fire chemical weapons,” said Shai Shtarker eating breakfast at a trendy Tel Aviv cafe. “I think something big will happen.”
Michal Hartman sat in a corner cafe yesterday breast-feeding one of her two young children.
“I’m not going to panic – that’s just what they want us to do,” she said. “We are more afraid of terror attacks.”
Orian Cohen sought comfort through humor. If a Scud hits, she said she’ll adapt.
“If worse comes to worst, we’ll just have to renovate the apartment,” she said. “I just want it to start and finish already.”