Two chilldren walk to school in Tel Aviv on Thursday carring their gas mask kits over their shoulders. (Photo: Reuters)As the American military offensive against Iraq entered its first full day, Israelis attempted to carry on with their regular routines. Schools and businesses opened as usual on Thursday, but citizens were instructed to carry their gas mask protection kits at all times. Schoolchildren walking to school with gas mask kits slung over their shoulders was a common sight on the streets around the country.

At the same time as The Israeli Air Force was put on a high state of alert, Foreign Minster Silvan Shalom said that Israel was not part of the war against Iraq and did not want to become involved.

“Israel is not part of the campaign against Iraq and does not want to be dragged into it,” Shalom said in a conference call with Israeli diplomats after the U.S.-led war began.

“We are praying for the safety of the coalition troops,” he said, adding, “Israel stands together with the American people and their allies in their campaign to destroy the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

Israel has said repeatedly it intends to play no role in the war but has reserved the right to retaliate if Iraq attacks it.

Israel has prepared two lines of missile defense against Iraqi Scuds – the multi-billion-dollar Arrow system developed after the 1991 Gulf War and upgraded U.S.-made Patriot missiles.

The head of the Air Force, Brig.-Gen. Yair Dori said he remains “very confident,” of its ability to neutralize incoming missiles should Israel be targeted in the coming hours or days.

The Israeli Air Force and its Air Defense Command are “fully prepared” having lurched into their highest level of alert on Tuesday morning, in anticipation of the US offensive, Dori said.

During a during a tour of the Arrow Missile battery in Palmachim, a base south of Tel Aviv, Dori said, “Israel is the only nation in the world that can cope with a two tier complex of ballistic missiles.”

According to military sources, Israel will have a window of five minutes to destroy a Scud missile between when it is launched and hits the ground. The public will be given a warning of about 3.5 minutes to put on their masks and find the nearest bomb-shelter or sealed room.

Satellite information partially provided by the US, provides Israel with “a robust capability,” to detect a launched rocket, Dori said.

Should a multi-Scud salvo of Iraqi missiles be lobbed at Israel, the Arrow system will “hopefully be successful. There is no 100% guarantee in any defense system,” Dori said.

Despite the calls for routine life, some 12,000 reservists from anti-aircraft and Home Front Command units have been called up to active duty, and workers in hospitals and health care services have been put on emergency status.