Fri Jan 17, 8:56 AM ET – AP
By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press Writer
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Thousands of Palestinians toting pictures of Saddam Hussein marched in support of the Iraqi leader Friday as Israelis lined up for gas masks, fearing attack on their cities if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
Also Friday, the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for a botched attack with a booby-trapped raft. An Israeli navy gunship fired on the dinghy, causing a large explosion off northern Gaza. Hamas did not say what the attacker’s target was, but several Jewish settlements are near the shore in that area.
In Gaza City, about 3,500 Palestinians filled narrow streets with fluttering Iraqi flags and pictures of Saddam. Some chanted together, “Our beloved Saddam, strike Tel Aviv,” reviving an old slogan from the 1991 Gulf War.
Flanked by three guards hefting submachine guns, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, told reporters that the march was evidence of strong Palestinian support for Iraq.
“The Palestinian people and Iraqi people are in the same trench of resistance against the aggression and against injustice,” he said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat , who backed Iraq in 1991, has withheld public support for Saddam. Palestinian police officers did not try to break up Friday’s rally.
At a rally in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, militants urged Arabs to volunteer to help defend Iraq from any attack.
“We call upon all nationalist and Islamist forces to immediately call for opening the doors to recruit volunteers to defend Iraq and its people,” Salah el-Youssef, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Front, a pro-Iraqi group, told the gathering of about 500 people in the Ein el-Hilweh camp.
In Jerusalem’s largest shopping mall, dozens of Israelis lined up to get gas masks, with fears of war revived by Thursday’s discovery of empty chemical warheads near Baghdad. Most of Israel’s 6.6 million people have received gas masks from the military over the years.
Israel’s Defense Ministry is to award a contract in the next few weeks for production of an improved gas mask with a battery-operated air pump and a more comfortable fit, especially for people with beards, ministry spokeswoman Rachel said.
The first of the new masks, which Israel has been working for years to develop, will be ready by late spring, she said.
Last month, a Defense Ministry expert, Esther Crasser, told an Israeli newspaper, that only one-third of the type of gas masks distributed in recent years are effective.
Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, which has a staff well-drilled in treating victims of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks, is preparing to take in several hundred victims of chemical and biological weapons attacks. The hospital said it could treat Israelis wounded at home as well as American soldiers injured in Iraq.
The hospital, one of the best-equipped in the Middle East, is updating computer systems to handle registration of patients with foreign passports, spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy said.
In particular, the hospital staff is readying to treat burns and lung injuries in case they receive soldiers hurt by chemical or biological weapons, she said. The hospital did not receive a specific request from the Americans to take in wounded soldiers, she said.
Israel this week went into a higher stage of alert, code-named “Red Hail.”
Hundreds of American soldiers are in place in southern Israel for joint maneuvers to prepare anti-missile defenses in case Iraq strikes Israeli cities as it did in 1991. At the time, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.
Preliminary exercises have begun and a live-fire drill is planned, involving two anti-missile systems, the American-made Patriot and the Arrow, developed by Israel and the United States. U.S. soldiers have brought Patriot anti-missile batteries with them and are to remain in Israel until the end of any war on Iraq.