Israel's COVID-19 response has parallels to the Gulf War - opinion

When Israelis acclimatize to danger, we tend to grow complacent, or at least inured.

Streets in Israel appear abandoned amid coronavirus lockdown (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Streets in Israel appear abandoned amid coronavirus lockdown
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It remains to be seen whether Israel’s new “tightened” lockdown will accomplish the goal of halting the spike in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality rates. As was the case during previous nationwide closures, the degree of adherence to and enforcement of government directives will determine the outcome.
One thing is certain, however. When Israelis acclimatize to danger, we tend to grow complacent, or at least inured. Such an attitude is compounded by the happy fact that more than 1.5 million citizens have already received the first injection of the Pfizer vaccine, and a shipment of Moderna doses landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday night.
Ironically, Israelis have been pushing, shoving and using “protektzia” to get inoculated as fervently as they nonchalantly cram into any space available. Such behavioral norms are so ingrained that no Health Ministry warnings can curb them.
As annoying as this may seem, it is actually one of the many paradoxes that make Israeli society so miraculous.
Nor is it the least bit new. The coronavirus crisis is simply the latest – and longest-lasting – example. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the First Gulf War, it is worth reviewing how average Israelis operated during the nearly six-week period when the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles were raining down regularly on the country.
At 2 a.m. on January 17, 1991, the air raid sirens that Israelis had been anticipating for a few weeks – while heading to Home Front Command stations to pick up and learn how to don our gas masks and use other items in our anti-chemical-weapons kit – finally arrived.
As everyone had been instructed ahead of that terrifying night, we all had designated a room in our homes to seal off with plastic sheets and duct tape. For the first time ever, we were told not to enter bomb shelters in the event of an attack, because “gas sinks.”
The initial fear in the air was palpable, even among IDF veterans. As well-versed as they were in conventional warfare – and as accustomed as all Israelis have been since the establishment of the state to the perils of bombs and other means of mass murder – this was a very different scenario.
Furthermore, the very idea of Jews being gassed to death was reminiscent of the Holocaust. The survivors in Israel were thus even more traumatized than anybody else by the thought that Saddam might make good on the threat he made in April 1990 to wipe out half of the Jewish state with chemical weapons if they were to hit any target in Iraq.
A few months later, on August 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In response, then-US president George H.W. Bush organized an international coalition against the move. On November 29, the UN Security Council authorized the use of “all means necessary” to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and issued an ultimatum to Saddam: Withdraw your troops by midnight on January 16 or suffer the consequences.
The rest, as we say, is history. Saddam didn’t budge and the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm with a massive airstrike on his forces in Iraq and Kuwait.
Baghdad retaliated by promptly bombarding Israel (and Saudi Arabia) with Scuds. Contrary to the Iraqi president’s previous boasting, these missiles were not equipped with chemical warheads.
After the first two or three attacks – which sent us into our sealed rooms, fumbling with the straps of our gas masks and shoving our babies into plastic tents – it became pretty clear that we were experiencing a low-scale war of attrition. Nevertheless, the government and Home Front Command refused to change the sealed-room directive.
They also didn’t exempt us from the order never to leave home without our gas masks in tow. Not that we had anywhere to go, really. Schools were closed, as were most offices. The state was under a self-imposed lockdown – one that was a lot more stringent and eerie than the ones to which we have been subjected, on and off, since March.
Within a week of the war, which Israel didn’t enter, many Israelis simply ignored the sirens, not bothering to go through the pointless drill of entering sealed rooms, and often snorting at the suggestion of schlepping masks to and fro.
ONE INCIDENT that comes to mind from those days – which I spent endlessly entertaining bored kids, with no smartphones or Netflix to help while away the hours – is illustrative. Just as a siren went off and I was getting the children in gear, my husband arrived home and headed straight into the sealed room with a stranger he had encountered on the street.
When the man entered, I asked him if wasn’t afraid to be out and about without a mask. “Nah,” he replied dismissively, with a winning grin. “I served in the air force.”
This statement might have sounded like a non sequitur to someone unfamiliar with the cocky charm so characteristic of Israelis in general and those of the male persuasion in particular. But it was actually shorthand for the expression of a lack of anxiety about being gassed.
In retrospect, he and others with a similar sense of security were right, particularly those in Jerusalem, which – unlike Tel Aviv – suffered no hits. And the Home Front Command was wrong to continue to insist that the public steer clear of bomb shelters. It was thus lucky for us that Saddam’s Scuds were so primitive and inaccurate.
Still, living in that kind of limbo from January 17 to February 25 felt like an eternity. It was therefore inevitable for national worry to be replaced by weariness. So much so that my friends and I began to quip that if we had to build one more Lego castle or sing “The Wheels on the Bus” yet again, we’d beg Saddam to put us out of our misery.
If being cooped up for 39 days due to an enemy like Saddam had such an effect on Israelis, how could living with coronavirus-spurred closures for going on a year not cause a comparable reaction?
While it may not be fair to minimize the pandemic – or accept former Health Ministry director-general Yoram Lass’s definition of COVID-19 as a “flu with public relations” – it is definitely unwise for the powers-that-be not to take the Israeli psyche into account when imposing restrictions. Though the common assumption is that if the public would only adhere to the rules, we wouldn’t need to be locked down, the opposite is no less true.
Indeed, the more draconian the measures, the greater the chance that people will search for and find loopholes – or simply shrug at the prospect of fines and openly violate the rules.
It’s hard to blame those who witness the farce of the coronavirus committee meetings and decide to use their own judgment about how to conduct themselves. It’s not the least bit difficult, however, to heap praise on the millions of Israelis of all ages who are scrambling to solve the crisis through a shot in the arm.