In this town overlooking the Plain of Armageddon, Israeli civilians have begun picking up the gas masks their government is distributing to counter a feared Iraqi chemical attack.

Government officials launched the program Sunday in Yoqneam, believed to be near the site where the Bible says a decisive battle will be fought before Judgment Day, and in two other small towns. The officials say they will provide the free masks to all 4.7 million Israelis, a task that is expected to take several weeks.Officials tried to promote calm as residents trickled into instruction centers in school classrooms, where soldiers showed how to use gas masks and poison antidotes.

The classrooms were festooned with the handiwork of pupils, and children received colored gas masks to help ease their fears.

"It's colorful and pretty so the child should not get afraid," said a female instructor, holding up a red-and-yellow gas mask for infants.

"It's troubling," said Aliza Artzi, after putting her 2-year-old daughter through a plastic anti-gas tent for infants. Her daughter, Tali, seemed unfazed.

Artzi said she hoped the kit would never be needed, but believed otherwise. Asked whether she believes war is likely, she said, "I think so."

Officials said that within days, they will have handed out masks to the 30,000 people of Ofakim, Kfar Yona and Yoqneam.

Israelis have already paid for their gas masks through their obligatory national insurance premiums.

The army says most Palestinians in the occupied territories will not be given the protection kits since they do not pay national insurance. However, the Palestinians will be able to purchase the kits bought by the army in Europe at cut-rate prices of about $20 each.

The government announced the program a week ago during an escalation of tensions in the 2-month-old Persian Gulf crisis. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has threatened to draw Israel into a war and to use chemical weapons.