JERUSALEM – Ilanit Shapiro stapled a notice to the bulletin board in the lobby of her apartment building here Monday inviting residents to a meeting. The subject? Clearing out the building’s bomb shelter, which had become a clogged storage space.
"I don’t think we are going to have any choice but to attack Iran," said Shapiro, a retired lawyer who is chairwoman of her house committee. "They want to kill us."
All through Israel, residents have been clearing shelters and stocking them with water and blankets to prepare for a war that could see hundreds of long-range missiles from Iran, and thousands of shorter-range rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon, fall on Israel’s cities. War is not expected to break out in the next few weeks—perhaps not until next year—but most Israelis will admit to at least a low-level of anxiety.
"I hadn’t replaced my gas mask since the Gulf War [in 1991], but I did three weeks ago," said Nuriel Zarifi, a café manager. "I have kids and I’m worried."
Should Israel attack? "My head says yes, my heart says no," said Zarifi. "A missile war frightens me. But if sanctions don’t stop their nuclear program then Israel will have to attack at some point, even without the Americans."
Despite repeated hints by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities alone, a firm majority of Israel’s population—61 percent, according to a poll in August—opposes a unilateral attack.
However, two-thirds of the population would support an Israeli attack if it had American support. Although not spelled out, "American support" could mean anything from the United States taking part in such an attack to the United States coming to Israel’s assistance in the event of a massive response from Iran and its allies.
Washington has been signaling strongly that a unilateral Israeli attack does not have its approval.
Public opinion in Israel does not break down along normal right-left lines. Although nine Likud Knesset members last week issued a statement of support for Netanyahu on whatever he decides, more striking was the refusal of the other Likud ministers to sign on to that position.
If war comes, Israel will be applying lessons learned in two previous wars that saw missile attacks. In the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein fired 36 missiles, mostly at the Tel Aviv area. There was much destruction but no one was killed. A major reason for that low figure was that many residents had fled the city despite the fact that the mayor, a former general, called them "deserters."
In the month-long war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the government would have been happy to see residents along the Lebanese border pull back but there were no evacuation options in place. Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets, killing 42 civilians.
This time, the Home Front Command has drawn up plans for large evacuation camps in the southern part of the country. Many Israelis are also expected to take shelter in West Bank settlements or in Jerusalem, where proximity to Palestinian communities could provide a measure of immunity against missiles.
In the wake of the Gulf War, all apartments built in Israel have reinforced concrete security rooms where, in times of tension, families can sleep. This is in addition to the basement shelters and public shelters. Home Front Command has been extensively reorganized, with close coordination between the various rescue services such as the police or fire fighters. Anti-missile defense systems will protect strategic infrastructure as well as air force bases in addition to providing general coverage.
The prospect of war is chilling. Defense Minister Barak has said the government expects that "only 500 or less" would be killed in retaliatory missile attacks, not the thousands that some have predicted. It is a cost, he said, that must be endured in order to prevent nuclear weapons from being developed by Iran, whose leaders have called for Israel’s destruction and deny that the Holocaust ever happened.
Not all Israelis have an apocalyptic view of the situation, however. "I don’t believe there will be a war," says Lea Ashkenazi, a Tel Aviv bookkeeper. "From all I’ve read, it doesn’t seem reasonable for Israel to attack alone. And the United States doesn’t seem ready to attack now."
Her apartment building has a shelter, she said, but it has not been cleared.
"No one knows where the key is," she said.