JERUSALEM – Israel's Cabinet decided Wednesday to inoculate 15,000 security and rescue officials against smallpox to prepare for what officials said was a very remote possibility of an Iraqi attack with non-conventional weapons.
The Cabinet decision is part of Israel's overall preparation for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq which, in turn, could trigger an Iraqi strike against Israel. Iraq has biological and chemical weapons, in addition to missiles with conventional warheads.
In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles — all with conventional warheads — at Israel. Most landed in the Tel Aviv area.
The United States has said it wants to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, although it has not confirmed that it will go to war to do so.
Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Wednesday he did not know when the inoculations would begin. He said the Health Ministry was preparing the vaccines.
"It's just part of the overall preparation of a very, very unlikely scenario," Gissin said. "It's a very remote contingency."
Gissin said it was decided to inoculate the rescue workers and security officials in case they would have to be called into action.
"We want to be prepared for every type of contingency," he said. "It's not something that has to do with any immediate threat."
Israel's Health Ministry recently announced it has produced enough smallpox vaccine for the entire population of 6.6 million people. The ministry said there was also enough to inoculate tourists and some 300,000 foreign workers. It did not say if it would inoculate the more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Health Ministry has said it would begin inoculating the entire population if the United States attacks Iraq. It said such a campaign would take a week.
A few hundred Health Ministry workers have already been inoculated.
Israel stopped vaccinating children against smallpox in 1978. A year later, the World Health Organization said the virus was eradicated from the world.