Thirty Years Since the Gulf War: How the U.S. Stopped Israel From Retaliating Against Iraq

Exactly three decades ago, the Israeli public - sheltered in safe rooms and donning gas masks - entered a new type of war. Forty-three Scud missiles and 77 fatalities (mostly from heart attacks) later, Israel would never be the same again

Gulf war collage
The Gulf War set a number of precedents: It was the first time the Israeli home front was bombarded by ballistic missiles and and the first time Israel was attacked and didn’t react.Credit: Steve Back/ANL/Shutterstock /REUTERS/Faleh Kheiber /AP Photo/Michael Mipchitz / AP Photo/Bill Gentile/DOD Pool /AP Photo/Salah Nasrawi / AP Photo/John Rice /AP Photo/Nati Harnik / AP Photo/Martin Cle
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman head

On January 18, 1991, Israelis were awakened at 2 A.M. to the familiar wail of emergency sirens. Within seconds, this sound was replaced by another, unfamiliar one in the Tel Aviv region and the Haifa Bay area: the landing of eight surface-to-surface Soviet Scud missiles. They were launched from west Iraq and landed at four sites in Israel: on Haifa’s outskirts, and in northern and southern Tel Aviv.

The residents, who were sheltering in their homes’ 'safe rooms' with gas masks covering their faces, were alarmed. The months that had led up to that moment were fraught with confusion, and the public’s lack of confidence in the political and military leadership had deepened following a series of contradictory assessments issued by the government, the defense establishment and pundits.

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Once the war started, Dick Cheney changed his stance and vehemently objected to an Israeli military intervention

The assessments were on important matters like whether to issue gas masks to the public, whether missiles would be fired at Israel and whether they would be fitted with chemical warheads. Panic and hysteria spread. Hundreds of thousands of people fled from the country’s center to areas they believed wouldn’t be targeted, like Jerusalem. Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat called them “deserters.”

Two Tel Aviv women console each other after reuniting at their destroyed apartment building after Iraqi launched Scud attack on the Tel Aviv area, Friday, Jan. 26, 1991.Credit: Max Nash / ASSOCIATED PRESS

That night, 20 people were lightly injured by shrapnel and 103 suffered from anxiety attacks and injury from misuse of masks. Some of the injuries were from people who panicked and injected themselves with atropine, a substance intended to treat nerve gas injury that was included in the safety kits issued by the Home Front Command.

After the first missiles landed, then-army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron called the staff for a meeting. His deputy, Gen. Ehud Barak, said the Israel Defense Forces’ working assumption should be that Iraq could fire more missiles at Israel. But the head of the air force intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yoel Feldsho, claimed the probability of a missile launch had been significantly reduced. Shomron instructed everyone to project calm and help the public return to routine life. But at the same time he ordered the IDF to be on high alert for biological and chemical warfare.

President George H.W. Bush calls on a questioner during a news conference in briefing room of White House in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 1991. Credit: Ron Edmonds / AP

Gen. Lipkin-Shahak admitted that everything Israel knew 'was no different that what was reported on public media outlets' – mainly CNN broadcasts

This inconsistency characterized the 41 days of the Gulf War in Israel. During this period, 43 missiles landed in Israel and 77 people died – mostly from heart attacks. Just three people were killed by the missile strikes.

The chemical weapons dilemma

On August 9, a week after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the countdown to the war began, Shomron gathered the General Staff to discuss whether to issue gas masks in the safety kit, which also contained a syringe with atropine.

“Barak said at that meeting that Iraq was unlikely to be the first to attack with unconventional weapons,” says Dr. Shimon Golan, a colonel in the reserves and a senior researcher in the IDF’s history department.

“Feldsho assessed that Saddam Hussein distinguished between ‘warfare inside his state and warfare in a foreign state.’” These quotes are taken from Golan’s recently published book, “Missiles on Israel: Decision making on the strategic level,” published by the Defense Ministry and Modan.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, in Aug. 9, 1990. Cheney vehemently objected to an Israeli military intervention.Credit: TANNEN MAURY / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The book is based on recordings made during the war by the history department’s head at the time, Col. Benny Michelson. The transcripts became official documents. The book, which underwent strict censorship and doesn’t detail the army’s operative plans for security reasons, constitutes the IDF’s and the Defense Ministry’s official version of the war.

Even with the launch of satellite Ofek 1 in 1988 and Ofek 2 in April 1990, Israel couldn’t get the intelligence it needed

To corroborate his position, Feldsho maintained that Hussein hadn’t used chemical weapons in his war against Iran and only used it against the Kurds in Iraq. This was not accurate. Iraq’s army bombarded Iranian troops with chemical weapons in the southern front. Like Barak, the IDF’s Intelligence chief, Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, assumed Hussein wouldn’t use such weapons against Israel as an opening move.

A young Iraqi boy carried a plate of sausage in the ruins of houses in a area west of Al-Ahrar Bridge, Baghdad, on Monday, Feb. 20, 1991 after a recent allied bombing raid.Credit: John Rice / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Golan wrote, “According to what the Military Intelligence and all the officials he talked to, including the United States, Iraq has no surface-to-surface missiles with chemical warheads.” However, he added, “chemical warfare materials can be thrown from airplanes.”

On February 22, it seemed Cheney was ready to agree to an Israeli attack. He said to Arens: 'If you act there, we’ll simply leave the region'

The Military Intelligence also estimated that Iraq had no nuclear weapons, since a decade earlier the Israeli Air Force had destroyed its nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

One way or another, all those attending the gathering, including Lipkin-Shahak and air force commander Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun, objected to issuing safety kits to the public, claiming it would cause panic and harm Israel’s “deterrence and fortitude.” Northern Command head Gen. Yossi Peled was among the few who was in favor of issuing them. Shomron was somewhat reserved. He agreed that issuing the kits could cause panic, but added that “if a chemical bomb drops, much greater panic would be caused, even if the number of fatalities is low.”

The hesitations continued for some time until public pressure prevailed and the army issued gas masks to the entire population.

A cormorant covered in oil in Saudi Arabia, following the oil spill caused by Iraq.Credit: Steve Back / ANL / Shutterstock

The response dilemma

Throughout the period before the war, Israel increased its pressure on the United States to coordinate its moves against Hussein in advance and strengthen the strategic cooperation. On December 31, 1990, an encrypted communication system known as the hot line was installed in the headquarters of the General Staff. The line connected it with the U.S. Army’s Europe command and the American military attache in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

This January 1991 file photo shows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in Baghdad.Credit: AP

Through this line, with the aid of American satellites, Israel got three-minute warning from the time the missiles were launched. From the time the system was installed to the end of the war, most of the calls by Israeli and American leaders and military chiefs were made on this coded line.

Shomron and Defense Minister Moshe Arens asked American Defense Secretary Dick Cheney before and after the war started to provide Israel with satellite photographs of missile launching sites in western Iraq. The United States agreed in principle, but dragged its feet and gave various excuses to delay handing over the photos.

Six years earlier, the spy Jonathan Pollard stole such photos and gave them to Israel. Even with the launch of satellite Ofek 1 in 1988 and Ofek 2 in April 1990, Israel couldn’t get the intelligence it needed.

A residential building in Tel Aviv that was hit by a Soviet Scud missiles fired from Iraq, January 1991.Credit: Martin Cleaver / ASSOCIATED PRES

Over the course of the war, Shomron confirmed that the IDF had surface-to-surface missiles whose range was beyond the H2 and H3 military sites in the desert of western Iraq.

On January 10, in one of their conversations on the hot line, Cheney asked Arens if Israel would react to the attack. Arens replied firmly that it would, but stressed that “receiving the photos would improve Israel’s operation ability.” That was apparently a sort of American condition: You’ll get the satellite photos if you don’t attack.

This is why the United States did everything it could to prevent Israel from taking military action. It deployed four anti-missile Patriot batteries in Israel, which ultimately proved ineffective. It also sent delegations of senior Pentagon officials to calm Israel down. America feared that an Israeli military assault would unravel the 35-country strong international coalition against Hussein and that the coalition’s Arab members, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, would pull out of it.

But Cheney also understood that it would be difficult to stop Israel from attacking. In that conversation with Arens before the war, Cheney emphasized that “The U.S. assumes that if Iraq attacks Israel and strikes targets in it, the United States will enable Israel to retaliate.” However, once the war started, Cheney changed his stance and vehemently objected to an Israeli military intervention.

War child: A mother and her child lay at the Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem with a face mask next to them, in 1991.Credit: GPA / Maggie Ayalon

Israel’s policy was soon put to the test. Although the war’s second night passed quietly, the next morning, at 7:15 A.M. on January 19, a second volley of four Scud missiles was launched, landing in Tel Aviv and its surroundings. IDF intelligence indicated that despite its efforts, the U.S. Air Force failed to destroy even one missile launcher. Israel realized the U.S. Air Force couldn’t contend with the mobile launchers in western Iraq.

That day, the security and defense cabinet was convened and the IDF presented its plans for military action in Iraq. The book doesn’t detail the operational plans but according to various Israeli military and government sources, it consisted of an air force attack in west Iraq and deploying special forces to locate and destroy the mobile missile launchers. The book says that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir “believed Israel must not, on any account, respond to the missile fire.”

And so the ritual continued throughout the war: Arens and other ministers, like Ariel Sharon – backed by a number of generals headed by Barak – pressed to attack despite the United States’ objection, while every few days the chief of staff and Arens presented the operative attack plans.

On February 22, it seemed Cheney was ready to agree to an Israeli attack. He said to Arens: “If you act there, we’ll simply leave the region west of the 42nd meridian.” Arens interpreted it as a sign that Cheney accepted an Israeli operation against the launching sites.

But Shamir, who talked to U.S. President George Bush several times, held back the trigger-happy ministers and generals. Shomron’s evenhanded position also cooled their eagerness. “Restraint was the right thing at the time, to preserve the coalition of the United States, Syria and Egypt against Saddam Hussein,” then-head of Southern Command Matan Vilnai, who is currently the chairman of the Commanders for Israel’s Security organization, told Haaretz.

Devastated homes in south Tel Aviv's Ezra neighborhood following an Iraqi Scud missile attack, 1991.Credit: GPO / Tzvika Israeli

“If the coalition had fallen apart because of Israel’s unnecessary involvement, it would have caused damage mainly to Israel,” Vilnai said.

But in the end, there are several reasons that Israel refrained from attacking. It was mainly the American objection, but Israel also lacked accurate intelligence. At the General Staff meeting on that dramatic Saturday, Lipkin-Shahak admitted that everything Israel knew “was no different that what was reported on public media outlets” – mainly CNN broadcasts.

Another reason for Israel’s restraint was the air force’s limited ability, certainly compared to the U.S. Air Force. And yet, fears continued to hover. One of the greatest ones was, according to Shomron, that “one possible target was the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, if only as revenge on bombing the nuclear reactor in Iraq.” If they decide to bomb it, he said, it will probably be with conventional weapons. However, he didn’t rule out the possibility that Iraq “might use the air force to bomb the reactor with chemical weapons.”

American tank crewmen in the Saudi Desert prepare an M1A1 for the expected ground assault against Iraq, Jan. 21, 1991. Credit: Peter DeJong / ASSOCIATED PRESS

In another discussion close to the end of the war, the Military Intelligence Directorate estimated that “Iraq’s threat to use surprises strengthens the assumption that when Saddam Hussein feels his back is to the wall, he might consider using unconventional weapons.” That did not happen, but Iraq did try to launch missiles at the reactor in Dimona. One of them landed about eight kilometers away from it. But the missiles landed in open areas and caused no harm.

The Gulf War set a number of precedents: It was the first time the Israeli home front was bombarded by ballistic missiles and the first time Israelis were under attack from a state that doesn’t share a border with Israel. The war was the first time the home front became the front, and the first time Israel was attacked and didn’t react. The restraint cracked the prevalent defense policy until then, which was to react with military force to any hostile act or military attack by an enemy, any enemy, to generate deterrence and prevent the other side from gaining an advantage and victory.