When Tel Aviv Becomes the Front

On the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War, senior military commanders warn that the home front may not hold up as well the next time around.

Less than a week after the outgoing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, came out strongly against an Israeli attack on Iran ("You go to war only when the sword is on your neck, cutting the flesh" ), a high-ranking officer in the Home Front Command begged to take issue.

In an interview with Anshel Pfeffer, published in Haaretz two days ago (on January 12 ), Col. Adam Zussman, commander of the Dan region in the Home Front Command, warned that "danger has returned to Tel Aviv. Under any war scenario, it will be hit by a large number of missiles, missiles that are precise and lethal."

His remarks had historical significance, as this week marks the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War - the only time in Israel's history that missiles struck the Dan region, which includes metropolitan Tel Aviv.

Zussman spoke on the day that the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, conducted his first in a round of farewell visits to various army units. In a visit to Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle, he praised the staff for correcting problems that emerged in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War.

Scud missile - Alex Levac - Jan. 1991
Alex Levac

According to Brig. Gen. (res. ) Uri Manos, who was head of Civil Defense - the forerunner of the Home Front Command - during the Gulf War, that war did not generate a lingering national trauma. "We were hit by 42 Scud missiles, and two people were killed as a direct result. People were disciplined and obeyed instructions. The mass exodus of people from the Dan region at night actually helped, since some of the Scuds struck empty buildings."

The army's big achievement during that war, he says, was persuading the government to distribute gas masks to civilians just a few months before the war and making sure that virtually every person in the country received a protective kit. "It's true that no chemical missiles were fired," he says, "but the response formulated was a reasonable one. The fact is that the public's confidence in Civil Defense soared during the war."

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Ze'ev Livneh, who coordinated the defense of the civilian rear during the Gulf War, established the Home Front Command after the war. "We were late in understanding that the war would affect us," he says. "I still remember the commander of the air force at the time, Avihu Ben-Nun, assuring us that Israeli air power would deter the Iraqis and that no missiles would strike the country. And this was when intelligence reports were saying that the Iraqis were fueling their missiles and Saddam Hussein was threatening to burn half of Tel Aviv."

That war, he says, turned what became the Home Front Command into a major player in civil defense. In its aftermath, a law was enacted requiring the construction of fortified rooms in all new buildings. "At present," he says, "30 percent of the buildings in Israel have fortified rooms."

Not enough kits for everyone

The current GOC Home Front, Yair Golan, describes the Gulf War as a "formative event, a true challenge, but in relatively convenient circumstances. If back then, we had 42 missiles that struck over 40-something days, it's clear that those conditions will not recur in the future."

Golan says he is "slightly envious" of the way the gas mask distribution program was implemented. "At that time, we were able to provide protective kits to 100 percent of the public," he says, "but today, in the sphere of ABC" - referring to atomic, biological and chemical warfare - "we're in a dire predicament. After we finish distributing all the kits we have, we will have reached only 60 percent of the public. That is very bad. Despite the decision taken by the security cabinet a year ago, funding has not been forthcoming. All we need is NIS 1.2 billion to complete the distribution and NIS 150 million a year for the ongoing maintenance of the protective kits. In strategic terms, that is small change."

Golan is convinced that today, too, "the public is disciplined. Everyone talks about the chaotic Israeli who never does what he's told to do. Amazingly, the Israeli wants to live. Give him good advice and he will carry out instructions. That is exactly what we saw in Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza. Protection of the home front, he says, "has advanced by leaps and bounds, in accordance with periods of tension and alert. There were quiet periods in 1992, in 1998, in 2003 [the second Gulf War] and after 2006. The lesson is that you must never take your foot off the gas pedal."

It is incumbent on Israel, Golan says, to prepare for the worst. "We foresee a significant threat to Israel's strategic infrastructure. The missiles will be launched from several arenas simultaneously and might also include chemical weapons. We need to deploy according to the enemy's capabilities, not according to its intentions. It's unrealistic that I would think I know exactly what the enemy is thinking at any given time. Still, we mustn't forget that we've developed some very powerful systems. We have the best air-defense system in the world, advanced detection and warning systems, and also an impressive level of training and exercises. The challenges we face are enormous, and the solution is to continue preparing to meet them. After all, no one will be disappointed if this threat does not materialize."

In 1991, Israel absorbed the Scud missiles and demonstrated offensive restraint. The revenge that Ehud Barak planned two years later - an operation to liquidate Saddam Hussein - fell by the wayside in the wake of a disastrous training accident. But during the war, elite units, with air force support, were prepared to raid western Iraq in order to attack the Scud launchers. Among those who urged a response were the defense minister at the time, Moshe Arens, the chief of staff, Dan Shomron, and other officers from the General Staff. Half-baked operational plans were taken out of mothballs, and planning teams worked feverishly to adapt them to the new circumstances.

The mission was initially entrusted to Maj. Gen. Doron Rubin. Later, the job of preparing the special forces was assigned to two former commanders of the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Nehemia Tamari and Amiram Levin. The Western Iraq operation was to have been carried out by elite units, among them Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and the commando unit of the paratroopers. The operational concept was inspired by what British and American commando forces were doing at the time: landing small forces to set ambushes that would disrupt the launching of the Scuds.

As it turned out, the Israel Defense Forces were not involved in the war at all, other than in a defensive capacity. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, well aware of all the pros and cons, decided not to take action. The United States was concerned that an Israeli operation would endanger its coalition, which included Egypt and Syria, among other countries, and disrupt the continuation of the war. Israel needed the Americans and the British in order to coordinate air corridors in Iraqi territory. Without that cooperation, and in the face of a firm veto by the first Bush administration, there was no point in risking an operation.

Livneh recalls that he was sent almost every day to update Shamir about the situation on the home front. "The prime minister would doze through most of the meeting, and the cabinet secretary, Elyakim Rubinstein, would wake him when the discussion ended. Shamir would conclude with a 'thank you very much,' and leave the room. In retrospect, I understood that this was no coincidence. He understood that his role was to wait quietly and not entangle the Americans."

Some generals thought differently, though. "I remember arguments with Avihu Ben-Nun," says Livneh. "I said to him, 'Let's say you attack in Western Iraq and take out a launcher. What good will that do if the American coalition falls apart?' There was no chance that the government would authorize such an operation. At no stage did I believe that would happen. It would have been political folly to send a brigade of paratroopers into Western Iraq." The approach currently advocated by Dagan and supported by Ashkenazi holds that the IDF must prepare its offensive capabilities with a focus on Iran, but be very selective and cautious about using them. In the more immediate arena of Lebanon, the IDF has again sanctified ground maneuvers since failing in this regard in 2006.

Even though the Lebanese border has been generally quiet over the past four years, since that war ended, Israel has been subjected to occasional rocket fire from Gaza for the past 10 years. (The first mortar was fired at the settlement of Netzarim in January 2001, and the first Qassam rocket struck Sderot in October that same year. ) This week, Uzi Rubin, the former head of the Homa (Wall ) missile-interception project and among the most vocal advocates of these systems, published the first wide-ranging study of Israel's response to the missile threat from the Gaza Strip. In the study, written under the auspices of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Rubin assails Israel's political and military leaders for their tardy response to the rockets, in stark contrast to the resourcefulness and initiative they showed in combating suicide bombers.

Rubin maintains that in the battle between the rockets and the Israeli response, the Palestinians had the upper hand. He argues that the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip evolved from a nuisance - almost a footnote at the start of the second intifada - into a genuine strategic threat.

According to Rubin, Israel preferred to respond by means of pinpointed offensive operations, most of which were not very effective, but that at least sent a message that the country was not going to sit idly by in the face of the continuing attacks. Passive protection (shelters and fortified rooms ) were not made available to residents of the region until much later, while the development of active defense measures (interception ) did not begin until after the shock generated by the Second Lebanon War.

According to Rubin, the massive acquisition of rockets and missiles by Israel's neighbors "ensures with a high degree of probability that a local war of attrition along the border will escalate rapidly into a war against the heart of the country." Israeli society, he writes, will have to reorganize its priorities and stand firm. "Not only social cohesion," he writes, "but the very ability of society to function and enable the IDF to carry out the offensive responses will depend on concrete defensive responses."