Exactly 30 years ago yesterday, on January 17, 1991, Israel’s then ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval held a press conference in the Israeli Embassy in Washington and, in somber tones, said the Jewish state was under attack.
“Tonight, Washington time, there has been an unprovoked attack by Iraq, launching Scud missiles, or perhaps improved Scud missiles, against purely civilian targets,” he said.
Just hours after the US launched Operation Desert Storm to pry Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of the Kuwait he invaded five months earlier, Saddam – true to his threats – responded to the US military attack by launching missiles at Israel.
In other words, US president George H.W. Bush attacked Iraq to free Kuwait on January 16, and Iraq’s response was to fire eight Scud missiles the following night at Haifa and Tel Aviv.
No one was directly killed by those eight missiles. In the ensuing five weeks – which saw another 31 missiles fired at the Israeli home front as the nation sat huddled in “safe rooms” with gas masks on and windows sealed with masking tape – two Israelis were killed directly by the missiles.
The number of indirect deaths attributed to the attacks – from heart attacks to the incorrect use of gas masks and atropine distributed to the nation in case the missiles were laced with some kind of chemical or biological agents – ranged from 11, according to some sources, to as many as 74 according to others.
This marked the first time since 1948 that Israeli cities came under direct enemy attack. Not only did the attacks traumatize the nation and make all its citizens, no matter how far from the front, feel vulnerable, it changed forever wars involving Israel in the Middle East.
Israel by that time was unfortunately no stranger to war. Up until then it had fought five full-blown wars, plus a war of attrition. The lion’s share of the battles of those wars took place at the front near the borders, away from the civilian population centers. Those wars were marked by tank battles in the Sinai or the Golan Heights, or dog fights in Egyptian or Syrian airspace.
But this war was different, because this was not our tanks against theirs on some desert plain; rather, it was their missiles against our population centers, their rockets against our kindergartens. And every war or low-level conflict Israel has been engaged in since then has followed the same pattern: the enemy’s rockets, missiles or bombs against Israel’s civilians.
That type of warfare characterized the Second Intifada launched in September 2000 – suicide bombers against buses, cafes and supermarkets, leading to 1,053 Israelis killed in four years.
This type of warfare also characterized the Second Lebanon War in 2006: Hezbollah firing nearly 4,000 rockets on Israel population centers, reaching as far south as Tiberias and killing 49 civilians.
And this is also the type of warfare that the Jewish state has become accustomed to when fighting Hamas in Gaza: their firing thousands of rockets on Israel cities and population centers, ranging from adjacent Sderot to Beersheba, Netivot, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. And these attacks are not aimed at military installations; rather, as Shoval said in 1991, at purely civilian targets.
And the prototype for all of the above was Saddam Hussein’s Scuds on Israel.
One of Israel’s strengths, indeed one of the keys to its survival, has been a keen ability to learn from trying times and difficult situations and to implement those lessons.
The 1991 Gulf War placed civilians directly in the line of fire, and it caught the civilian population completely unprepared to deal with this type of situation.
But Saddam’s Scuds, and the nightmarish notion that they could have been packed with chemical or biological weapons, forced the IDF and the government to readjust to a new military reality. Home Front Command was set up in February 1992, making it responsible for civil defense. Legislation was also passed in 1993, as a result of the war, requiring reinforced security rooms to be built in any new homes, apartments and public spaces.
The intermittent rockets fired from Gaza over the last 15 years have shown that the country’s civil defense still has much room for improvement. But the situation today is far better than it was in 1991, when what protected homes and apartments from Iraqi missiles was masking tape on windows.
And even more importantly than the development of Home Front Command, the Gulf War’s Scud attacks pounded home to the country’s decision-makers the notion that some solution needed to be found to the rockets and missiles arrayed against Israel, and that it was simply untenable to evacuate large population centers. From that moment on, efforts to develop an antimissile umbrella to protect Israel from missile and rocket attacks became a top priority and gained momentum.
The Arrow project, which was started some five years earlier as part of Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars” initiative, picked up both speed and advocates following the Gulf War. One of the reasons was because the Patriot antimissile batteries the US sent here proved rather ineffective, and Israel could not afford to be left standing naked in the wake of any future missile barrage.
Israel, helped enormously by generous US funding, set its mind to developing a three-tiered antimissile defense system: the Arrow to counter long-range ballistic missiles coming from Iran; David’s Sling to deal with intermediate-range missiles originating from Lebanon; and Iron Dome to intercept short-range missiles coming from Gaza.
This umbrella does not hermetically seal the country, and some rockets will seep through, especially if thousands are fired simultaneously. Nevertheless, the technological achievement is tremendous and something that gives the country a degree of maneuvering space and breathing room.
And that technological achievement got a huge push from that night 30 years ago when Saddam thought that by firing Scuds at Israel he could provoke a response from then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir that would break up the US-led coalition, including a number of Arab countries, waging war against him.
Shamir did not respond, and the coalition against Saddam held. Yet the missiles he fired at Tel Aviv and Haifa changed the face of war for Israel forever.