The weekend Iraqi missile attack on Israel's south, targeted at the Dimona nuclear reactor, broke a bit of the complacency creeping into a nation that is eager to shed its gas masks. Despite the renewed worries, officials are giving assurances that the reactor could stand up to a Scud missile blast and much, much more.
The Dimona reactor is Israel's not-so-secret source of enriched plutonium for the making of atomic weapons. Officials here say Iraq's targeting of the plant, though unsuccessful, was designed to frighten Israel and raise morale at home.
"Iraq wants to remind us that they're not finished, and they also want to say, at least in their fantasies, that they can strike back for what we did to their nuclear reactor," a military officer said Monday. In 1981, Israeli jets destroyed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak; it had been scheduled to begin operation soon.
Government and military officials say it would take more than the 400-pound Scud missile warhead to dent Dimona, a multilayered complex of laboratories and plutonium extraction plants. "Maybe an atom bomb might do it," quipped an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, evading questions on just how much power would be needed to blow up the plant.
Last year, military officers expressed concern that a well-placed, heavy bomb, delivered by jet, might be able to damage the reactor and spread nuclear fallout over Israel and much of the rest of the Middle East.
That threat, considered marginal, has receded further, due to the evacuation of the cream of Iraq's air force to Iran. Israeli officials are confident that their air defense systems and roving jets would be able to intercept an attacking bomber.
Dimona is also protected by Patriot antimissile batteries, identical to those that have been strung in a protective necklace along Israel's densely populated coastal plain. Dimona is just the sort of complex the Patriots were designed to defend; blowing up and scattering pieces of Scuds reduces the even slight danger that the erratic missiles pose for the isolated facility.
Nonetheless, the missile shot revived fears that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with his 500,000-man army under increasing pressure in Kuwait and his home front relentlessly battered by aerial pounding, might try to deliver a devastating blow to Israel, either through chemical attack by missile or a kamikaze jet assault with conventional or chemical bombs.
"Saddam Hussein opened a second front against Israel," blared the Yediot Aharonot newspaper in an editorial.
Top military officials warned the government during a Cabinet meeting Sunday that Hussein will probably try to unleash his chemical stockpile against Israel. It was not clear how he would deliver them; there is skepticism that he can put a chemical warhead on the Scud.
Baghdad Radio announced that Iraq launched three rockets at Dimona and scored "destructive strikes." There were no reports of any damage in the Negev desert, the spade-shaped region of Israel's far south where Dimona is located. Another Scud was reported to have fallen near Haifa without causing damage. Residents of the northern city said that a pair of Patriot missiles were fired at the approaching rocket.
Israel has never officially admitted the existence of its nuclear program. And a court sentenced Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen and former employee at Dimona, to 18 years in jail for revealing nuclear secrets to a British newspaper.
The Gulf War has thrown an unusually bright spotlight on Israel's nuclear arsenal, which is said to number at least 100 bombs that can be mounted on jets or missiles.
U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney gave a hint that virtually confirmed Israel's nuclear capability. Answering a reporter's recent query on whether Israel would use nuclear weaponsif it were hit by chemical bombs, Cheney said such a response was "a decision Israelis will have to make. But I think Saddam should be very cautious."
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens appeared to signal the possible use of nonconventional retaliation when he said that Hussein had "better be worried" if he decides to use chemical weapons on Israel. Otherwise, the government has stuck to the position that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region."
It is necessary to maintain the fiction, officials say, to not run afoul of American constraints on nuclear proliferation. Countries that are found to be building nuclear bombs are vulnerable to a cutoff of U.S. aid. Enough nuclear material is extracted at Dimona to manufacture 10 bombs a year, experts say.
Iraqi missile strikes against Israel have been sporadic and less destructive since the first series launched Jan. 18. Two Israelis have died in rocket-borne explosions; about 200 residents, mostly of Tel Aviv, have been injured.
In Tel Aviv, pedestrians often are taking to the streets now without gas masks. Civil defense officers complained that, instead of going indoors to rooms sealed in plastic during air raids, Israelis are beginning to climb on rooftops to see the fireworks that take place when a Scud meets a Patriot.
On one Tel Aviv street, models from a cosmetics company showed off gas masks that were made up with rouge and giant false eyelashes. Spectators at a weekend soccer game wore their gas masks while cheering on their favorite team.
In Jerusalem, which has never been hit or even skimmed by a Scud, residents have become downright contemptuous of the threat. "It only bothers me because the siren wakes me up," said shopper Sidra Gordon, who was browsing along Jaffa Road without her gas mask kit.
A group of youths at Zion Square, a pub and hangout, said they leave the masks in the car so that when the sirens sound, they can try to rush to Tel Aviv to see a Patriot intercept or, failing that, some damage.
"It's hard to dance with a mask," a teen-age girl named Sheila said.
"And they're hard to kiss through," added her adolescent companion.