Parents take youngsters shopping for gas masks

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Israel. JERUSALEM - Lianne al Ian leads her five-year-old daughter Noor to a table covered in black rubber gas masks, metal respirators and plastic headgear for tiny tots. "Would you like to try it on?" she coaxes, easing the mask over Noor's silky hair. She takes one look at the snout-like breathing apparatus and opens her mouth in a howl.

A few feet away, Ravtal Levy is having better luck with her own five-year-old, Din. He eagerly grabs at an astronaut-like transparent hood and tugs it over his head, delighted to take part in what seems to be a masquerade party.

But it is not a masquerade, it is real life for Israel's five million citizens who could be the first targets of Saddam Hussein if America launches a war against Iraq. Civil defence centres like this one in a south Jerusalem shopping mall are open daily for citizens who want to pick up new gas masks, watch videos on surviving a chemical attack, and receive counselling from young soldiers who explain how to use the gear.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, causing damage to hundreds of homes. This time the Israeli government plans to take no chances.

In schools, meanwhile, soldiers teach pupils safety routines to practise before bombs strike. Plans have also been made for internet learning, in case of alerts that keep children home from school. So far only the American school in Jerusalem has been closed. But in Tel Aviv, arrangements are being made for students to receive personal codes for signing on to the internet through their own computers.

"The purpose is for children to communicate with teachers, psychologists and friends during an emergency, and to create conversation and study groups," says Gila Ben Har, director of the city's education department.

Computerised classes will make sure that high-school students do not lose precious learning time or neglect their work while lying low at home. Nor will teachers have a holiday - they will set assignments via the internet, email answers to pupils' questions and mark their cyber papers.

Meanwhile, school psychologists have been trained to deal with any traumas the children might suffer in a new war, bearing in mind that Israel and the Occupied Territories have seen more than 2,500 deaths in the past two years.

"We're so used to living with tension that this isn't really new to us," said Dr Norman Enteen, the Israeli education ministry's head of counselling and psychological services.

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