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Harvard Grad in Israel: Situation `Very Serious'

By Matthew M. Hoffman

For most Americans, the first word of Iraq's second missile attack on Israel came shortly after 12:30 a.m. Friday night, when television news flashed unconfirmed reports of explosions in the city of Tel Aviv.

Michael R. Kelsen '90 needed no such second-hand report. From his hotel balcony in Tel Aviv, he could see the flash of light and feel the tremors in the ground that signalled the beginning of the renewed attack.

"It was pretty hairy this morning," Kelsen said in a telephone interview with The Crimson early Saturday morning, at about 1 p.m. Israeli time.

"I was standing on the balcony and I saw the missile come in and just BOOM. It shook the whole ground."

Kelsen, a former Undergraduate Council officer who has been studying Middle Eastern politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on a Wallenberg fellowship, knew what he was getting into when he went to Tel Aviv to work as a translator for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Only a few hours before he took the job, Iraqi Scud missiles had struck the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, inflicting only limited damage, but striking renewed fear into the hearts of many Israelis.

Most of the Americans studying in the Hebrew University program had already left the country, Kelsen said. The few who remained--mostly Jews, he Said--were simply watching and waiting for the next move.

"It's unexpected, but the big thing here is boredom," Kelsen said in an earlier interview from Jerusalem, shortly after the first attack had subsided.

"Everybody is huddled inside--you're not supposed to leave the house. It's a scary thing. You look outside and everything is silent. It must be like the early days of the Blitz in London."

Initially, Kelsen said, Israelis felt a great sense of relief at the news that American-led military forces had commenced a massive air attack on Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein's chemical arsenal and nuclear potential.

People stopped hoarding food and supplies, and life returned to a semblance of normality for a brief moment, Kelsen said.

"There was a great sense of euphoria here--people assumed that Iraq had been taken out."

That feeling came to an abrupt end at about 2 a.m. Thursday morning, when Israelis across the country were roused from bed by the wail of air raid sirens.

"It was deafening," Kelsen recalled on Friday. "It ripped me out of bed. I turned on army radio and there was nothing special--there was music, and I thought it was a false alarm."

"And then I looked out of the window and there was a lot of fighter activity."

Kelsen, whose roommate works for The Associated Press, said he was getting much of his information about the war via Washington. Reports of the damage on Israeli radio remained contradictory and confused for several hours, and newspaper accounts in the morning were incomplete, he said.

Although no one was killed by the missile barrage, Kelsen said that three people were reported dead in the wake of the attack--including a small child who smothered in a protective tent designed as a shield from gas attacks.

Preparations for a possible counterstrike began almost immediately, Kelsen said. Another roommate, a member of a reserve unit of Israeli paratroopers, received word of a sudden callup through a coded radio broadcast.

"When they start mobilizing the reserves like they are, it means the situation is very serious," he said.

"The Israeli rhetoric is very defiant. There's a bravado here when it comes to their military. If there's another attack, I have no doubt [that Israel will retaliate], and if it's chemical attack, they're going to absolutely devastate Iraq."

After interviewing several Tel Aviv residents after the second attack, Kelsen said he had few doubts that an Israel would launch a reprisal before long.

After the first attack subsided, he said, most Israelis were willing to accept President Bush's assurances that the U.S.-led alliance was stepping up efforts to take out Iraq's mobile Scud missile launchers. They were "sort of resigned," he said.

"People are very tense but very confident, very angry...It's enough already they said. It's time to strike back."

Kelsen said he took the job with the Inquirer in spite of the danger, because he wanted to see first-hand what was going on.

And in the wake of the first attack, he said his resolve to remain in the country had only been heightened. "It's been fascinating. I couldn't possibly leave now," he said.

In the interview after the second wave of missiles, however, Kelsen's feelings on the situation had altered noticeably.

"It's getting to be too much. It's not funny any more," he said Saturday morning, adding that he would probably try to leave the country before the end of the week. The danger, he said, was now too great.

"You go to sleep and you don't know if you're going to be roused in the middle of the night. You don't know if the missile's got your name on it."

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