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Israelis are prepared -- or not -- for an Iran attack

Bernat Armangue / AP

An Israeli woman talks on the phone after collecting gas masks for her family in a shopping mall in Jerusalem in this Aug. 22 photo.

TEL AVIV – Did you know:

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  • If a bomb explodes near you with a little bang, that's a sign it is carrying chemical or biological weapons? A loud bang means a conventional warhead.
  • If an attack is chemical, you will know right away? But if it's biological you'll only find out after a few days.
  • If it is nuclear, you should lie down and cover your head? And don't get up when the first blast wave passes over you because it will be followed by a second wave.

Useful, eh?

All these facts are good to know if you are in Israel and war with Iran, and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, were to break out around you.

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Or if something happened with Syria, Iran's ally, which has large stockpiles of biological and conventional weapons.

With the latest opinion polls showing that half of Israelis fear for the continued existence of their state if war breaks out with Iran, and with more than half rating the chance of such a war within a year as "medium" or "high,” the more you know about what the war would entail, the better.

Here are some more facts:

  • If you suck a bead made of castor oil, it could kill you. It contains ricin, a lethal poison.
  • After Chernobyl, it took 25 years before Welsh sheep could be eaten because the nuclear radiation settled over Wales as it drifted most of the way round the world.
  • And cigarettes contain polonium 210, the poison used to murder the Soviet ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Probably no country in the world is as prepared as Israel for such an attack, with every home built in the last 21 years possessing a mandatory bomb shelter. City centers have vast public shelters with special rooms set up for non-conventional attacks. And citizens are instructed in how to protect their bomb shelters against chemical and biological warfare.

Mistakes happen
But mistakes can happen, as I can personally attest. 

One evening in the winter of 1991 during the first Gulf War, with Iraqi Scud missiles rocketing over Jordan toward Israel, the bomb alarm sounded. My family quickly locked themselves in our bomb shelter, and I raced through the dark, silent streets to broadcast from our NBC News studio.

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This had become routine. I spent all night in the studio, responding to the many alarms, and went home around 5a.m. I didn't check on the family because I knew where the Scuds had fallen and none were near my home.

This one time, however, with 30 minutes to go before my next live broadcast hit, I had a sense that something was wrong. For the first time after an attack, I called home to see how my wife and my three sons, all aged below six, were faring.

In an attempt to convey what he sees as a threat to Israel's existence, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a cartoon to illustrate how close he says Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly he asked the world to help stop them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

No answer. I called again. No answer. Twenty-five minutes to go before my next “live hit” on TV with Tom Brokaw. I felt sick with worry. What could have happened?

I ran downstairs, jumped into my car and raced home. I figured a 10-minute drive, five minutes at home and 10 minutes back, I'd be in the studio with seconds to spare.

Life-saving decision
Ends up, because of that calculation, I saved my family's lives.

When the all-clear sounded, my wife, our three sons, my sister-in-law and the dog, a schnauzer called Tofi, couldn't get out of the shelter.

The heavy steel lock would not budge. They hung on it and pulled and tried and tried but could not open the door. When I arrived home, about two hours after they had entered the bomb shelter, I heard faint cries of "help, help."

Instead of pushing the handle up, they had been pulling it down, locking it instead of opening it.

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I was able to open the door from the outside and all was well.

But if I had stuck to my usual routine and not called home and just returned at 5 a.m., after leaving them at 8 p.m. the night before, they would have been dead.

It's simple math: An adult breathes about one cubic meter of air per hour, children more. Five people in a small room of about nine cubic meters would begin to lose air after two hours. Seven hours? They'd have all been dead.

A miracle? Sixth sense? Whatever, it's a warning of what can go wrong in times of stress. And however prepared Israelis are for what awaits them, accidents happen. When Iraq attacked Israel in 1991, far more people died of heart attacks than Scud rockets.

Country on edge
Since that time, every apartment built in Israel must have a blast-proof room that protects citizens from conventional blasts and also, with plastic and tape, can protect against chemical and biological weapons too. Walls and doors are approximately 8-12 inches thick and doors and windows are airtight.

Every citizen has, in theory, a gas mask. In practice, there aren't enough to go around.

Everybody asks, do you think there will be war with Iran? Nobody knows, and if you see Israel’s crowded cafes, the bustling streets, the crammed beaches, you may think that nobody cares.

Yet Israel is a country on edge. Most seem to have bought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line that the price to pay to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb is much lower than the price to be paid if Iran has the bomb.

Fueling those thoughts are memories of what happened when the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. Today, there are approximately 6 million Jews in Israel. Few Israelis can argue against Netanyahu's insistence of: Never again.

And yet, I don't know anyone here who has prepared their bomb shelter. They're all a mess, used to store boxes, suitcases, footballs and wine. They are used as computer rooms, bicycle storage, play rooms. The attitude is, for the most part, we'll worry about it when the time comes.

Until then, live life.

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