What Saddam Hussein Taught and Israel Has Yet to Learn

Although the threats Israel faces may be different, the military responses advocated are much the same as they were in the days of Ben-Gurion.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel’s security doctrine took a turn in a new direction. For the first time since 1948, it was the home front, not the battlefield, where the action played out. The Iraqi Scud missiles fired at Tel Aviv and Haifa were able to circumvent military posts, tank divisions and air force squadrons, and hit civilian centers.

Only two people were directly killed, and property damage was not extensive, but the country was paralyzed for six weeks. Tens of thousands fled their homes in high-risk areas, foreign airlines refused to land in Israel, and those who remained in their homes and continued going to work, barricading themselves into sealed rooms when the sirens went off, began to feel that the Israel Defense Forces could no longer protect them.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein succeeded in frightening Israelis, and his success touched off a wave of imitators. The Palestinians moved their first intifada from the occupied territories to inside Israel, first with knifings and then with suicide attacks. Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas equipped themselves with large rocket and missile systems that threaten the “state of Tel Aviv,” where most of the population and nearly all of Israel’s economic activity is located.

The war that ended in a U.S. victory helped launch the Israeli-Arab peace process, which opened at the Madrid Conference. Still, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not believe the damage to the home front in that war a reason to consider the possibility of any withdrawal from the occupied territories, nor any slowdown in settlement construction. He was dragged to Madrid only because of U.S. pressure.

IDF soldiers Lebanon war IDF Spokesman's Office
IDF Spokesman's Office

His successor, Yitzhak Rabin, was the first Israeli statesman to internalize the threat to the home front and draw diplomatic conclusions. As defense minister, Rabin was concerned about the civilian population’s vulnerability even before the Gulf War, when he witnessed missile hits during the “war of the cities” − Baghdad and Tehran − in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war. The Iranians, who suffered more, eventually caved in and asked for a cease-fire. During the Gulf War, when he served as an MK in the opposition, Rabin descended the eight stories from his apartment in Neve Avivim to the shelter in his building.

This unpleasant experience motivated him, upon his return to power, to seek a compromise with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Rabin justified his approach by saying he feared the citizens of Israel would have difficulty withstanding a broad attack on the home front.
Pesky civilian

The Israel Defense Forces had difficulty acknowledging the new threat. Moshe Arens, the defense minister during the Gulf War, imposed organizational changes on the army in its aftermath: The Home Front Command was established, and development of the Arrow missile interception system was put into high gear. But the soldiers serving under him perceived him as a pesky civilian.

Ehud Barak, who was appointed chief of staff after the war, saw in this defense strategy a civilian initiative “exogenous to the multi-year plan.” The army’s approach was that it is impossible to win wars using defensive means and that the best strategy is to reinforce the attack branches of the army.

Fifteen years went by and the resolve of the home front was once again tested during the Second Lebanon War, when the northern third of Israel was attacked by rockets from Lebanon. This time, nearly 4,000 rockets were fired into Israeli territory, a hundred times more than in the Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis fled from the danger zones, the civilian support systems proved inefficient, and the IDF was unable to stop Hezbollah. The refugee camp set up then by Russian tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak in the sands of Nitzanim highlighted the impotence of the government and the army. The war ended in a disappointing tie. This time, however, the army understood it was necessary to adapt both its doctrines and its forces to the changing threat.

The Gulf War was waged, for the most part, far from Israeli territory, and the center of the country remained outside enemy range during the Second Lebanon War. Still, these two events exposed the challenges Israel will face in an all-out war. They made clear how difficult it is for intelligence to provide advance warning of rocket fire, which does not require obvious preparations like the moving of tank divisions. They exposed the difficulties the army’s offensive units face in locating and destroying enemy rockets, and especially, short-range rockets. They also highlighted the dilemma facing reserve soldiers, on whom the IDF relies, and the employees of essential industrial plants: whether to protect home and family or to report for duty at the reserve unit or the production line and trust the state to look after their children.

They showed what happens when the main roads that are supposed to serve the deployment of the army are jammed by thousands of cars carrying refugees. They showed what happens when essential installations, from power stations and ports to hospitals and bakeries, have trouble operating. They also showed that information and communications systems are vulnerable to paralysis.

The enemy understands all this as well and has, therefore, been equipping itself with more missiles and rockets and improving their precision and destructive power so that when the time comes they will be able to hit air force bases and other important sites.

Ehud Barak, who after “Lebanon II” was appointed defense minister, has now taken the completely opposite approach he had as chief of staff. Today, he is an ardent supporter of anti-missile defense systems, like the Arrow and the Iron Dome, and believes that within five years it will be possible to shield the home front.

The IDF realizes that the Home Front Command, the successor of the doddering Civil Defense, will be the most important command in a war in which “Tel Aviv becomes the front,” in the words of outgoing Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

The new multi-year plan being formulated by IDF planning chief Amir Eshel reinforces the defensive pillar in the army’s structure. Setting up missile interception systems, scattering the locations of installations and stores and trying out essential systems under rocket fire − all these are supposed to provide the government with more freedom of action. The army does not perceive missile attacks on the home front as an existential threat to Israel, the way it does − though this latter fear has meanwhile subsided − an invasion by armored forces that will tear off pieces of the country.

It is estimated that in the next war there will be hundreds of civilian fatalities, and not thousands, as some disturbing assessments have predicted. It is expected that after absorbing the initial blow, the IDF will succeed in reducing enemy fire, even if it does not put it out altogether.
Israel’s recognition of the growing firepower of Hezbollah and Hamas may explain why it is holding back today from military actions and refraining from attacking the nuclear installations in Iran.

Although the threat to Israel has changed, the military answer has not, at least not in fundamental terms. As in the days of Orde Wingate and David Ben-Gurion, today the IDF is set up to move the war into enemy territory if Israel is attacked. In the face of the threat to the Israeli home front, the IDF proposes counter-threatening essential sites on the other side, in the hope of undermining the enemy regime and its survival. This has become known as the “Dahiya doctrine,” the reference being to the Shiite neighborhood of Beirut that was heavily bombarded in the Second Lebanon War. Or, in less polite language, tit for tat.

Like Ben-Gurion, the IDF top brass today also believes Israel must aim for short wars − a day, two days, three − and not get dragged into long conflicts that could raise questions about the legitimacy of its actions, damage public morale and the economy, and in the end allow the enemy to proclaim: “I remained on my feet and I won.”

All this being said, the home front wars and the new threats facing Israel have done little in the way of resolving the historic conflict between left and right. This conflict remains, just as Shamir wanted to cling to the territories and Rabin agreed to withdraw from them in return for peace. Anyone who believes, like President Shimon Peres, that territory is less important in an era when missiles fly right over it, is prepared to exit from the West Bank and descend from the Golan Heights. And anyone who believes, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that there is no substitute for control on the ground even when the rockets are flying overhead, wants the IDF to remain in the territory.