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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THE GULF WAR : Seeking Word on Israel : Consulate Is Besieged by Calls as Missiles Hit Homeland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Iraqi Scud missiles had rained down on Israel and, like dozens of other calls Ruth Opatowsky has fielded in recent days, the person on the other end of the line was frantic.

“He wanted to know exactly where the missiles fell and if his girlfriend would be safe and how he could get to her,” said Opatowsky, a 26-year-old aide at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.

She told him when the next flight to Israel would be leaving Los Angeles International Airport, wished him well, and braced herself for what probably would be another anxious caller.

It was like that throughout the day and long into the night Saturday at the consulate’s offices 17 floors above Wilshire Boulevard.

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In the weeks before war broke out, the consulate--normally an administrative outpost--had served as a 24-hour nerve center, linking more than 1 million Jews and 200,000 Israelis in seven Southwestern states with up-to-the-minute information on events occurring in the Persian Gulf.

Just as worried Arabs throughout the Southland have desperately sought news about the war and their homelands, Jews have besieged the Israeli Consulate with calls.

Since Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Israel, the consulate’s mission has taken on an added sense of urgency.

“There are Israelis and Americans calling us, Jewish people and non-Jewish,” said Dan Ben-Eliezer, a spokesman for the consulate. “They want to know the details. People, of course, were concerned after the missile attacks.”

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For callers seeking information on where the missiles had struck--or those who couldn’t get phone calls through to relatives--the consular corps provided details that were critical in determining whether loved ones were safe.

In offices throughout the mammoth complex, aides were hunched over their phones. They not only consoled callers, but monitored the TVs and radios that constantly blared news of the Middle East.

Faxes and telexes arrived in noisy torrents, keeping the staff abreast of what Israeli government officials were saying after the explosions rocked their country. The consular officials were getting answers to questions being asked by the public: Should Israel retaliate? Will they? Is it a good idea? What are other countries saying?

To ensure that the vital information gets through, the consulate has a special open phone line to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and its embassy in Washington.

Every so often, an office intercom would announce that yet another conference call was coming in to Consul General Ran Ronen.

Ronen, a barrel-chested veteran of Israeli wars inserted uncomfortably into a navy blue business suit, was ensconced in his suite by 10:30 a.m. Picking up the phone, the 54-year-old former air force pilot and brigadier general launched into another discussion of the war with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, and the eight other consul generals around the country.

“We are operating around the clock,” Ronen told a visitor. “I don’t like to name names, but I’ve been in touch with many, many key people--ministers, top generals, diplomats.

“Every single second, all the time,” he said, “we get more and more information.”

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Only minutes before, he said, he had learned details about the U.S. shipment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Israel to help defend against another Iraqi attack.

In a series of briefings, meetings, phone calls and news conferences throughout the day, Ronen and his staff passed their newly gained information on to Jewish federations and groups from Hawaii to Colorado.

As one of Israel’s two senior consul generals, Ronen has played another important role in the last week. Using his state-of-the-art communications systems, he and his staff have relayed to Israeli officials the mood of Americans toward the war and Israel’s decision not to immediately retaliate against Iraq.

Ronen said 60% of the callers so far have favored retaliation and 40% have urged Israel to stay its hand.

The consulate staff also has been writing down the names and phone numbers of the many callers offering to go to Israel or to provide financial assistance and even blood.

Still others have called simply to blame Israel for the Persian Gulf war.

“Some just call to say this is all Israel’s fault,” said one aide. “So we listen.”

Because of such angry callers, security was tight around the complex Saturday. Sgt. Michael Marsolek, standing between two of the three Los Angeles police squad cars parked near the building, said 24-hour patrols will be in effect for at least a few days.

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“Mostly, we’re just here to keep an eye on the location,” he said.

As always, visitors had to be cleared by security guards before getting into the elevator. Once on the 17th floor, they had to pass through a heavy steel door and identify themselves before TV cameras in an anteroom. Their credentials were placed in a bomb-proof box and inspected by employees behind bullet-proof glass.

Another steel door separated the consulate from the outside world. Inside, several security guards added another layer of protection.

Like Israel itself, the consular corps was expecting to have another sleepless night.


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