Tel Aviv's Missile Strike Trauma Still Hasn't Abated

For Tel Avivians who lived through Saddam's threats and missile strikes, the fear of chemical attack was more distinct, more intense than any subsequent wars and intifadas that have struck the city.

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An Israeli looks at special gas masks for asthmatics, as Israelis collect gas masks at an army distribution center in Tel Aviv on December 22, 2002.
An Israeli looks at special gas masks for asthmatics, as Israelis collect gas masks at an army distribution center in Tel Aviv on December 22, 2002.Credit: Reuters

When I asked some friends what they remembered of the First Gulf War's impact on Israel, 25 years ago this week, not much seemed to spring to their minds – maybe sitting in so-called “sealed rooms,” eating burekas and lugging around a gas mask in a cardboard box with a shoulder strap. 

Oh yes, and some of Saddam Hussein's missiles falling here and there.

How short is public memory. The first Gulf War, triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait whose liberation was achieved by an American-led coalition – was the first time that Tel Aviv's security was cracked. Yes, Saddam had for years threatened to "burn half of Israel", and the Israeli authorities warned that an attack could include biological or chemical payloads, but missiles over Tel Aviv? It sounded more surreal than aliens landing in Dizengoff Square. 

People huddled in the sealed rooms (a stopgap measure before buildings were required to have a "protected space" for such contingencies). The alleged “sealing” against a poison gas attack amounted to flimsy plastic sheets taped over apartment entrances and windows with a wet floor rag stuffed under the door. Residents quavered behind this "protection" waiting for the all-clear sirens. 

Women run for shelter in Tel Aviv as a missile alert siren sounds in November, 2012.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Although dubious that a plastic sheet could stop a chemical weaponized Scud missile – much less a conventional exploding one – from hurtling through my roof or window, I nonetheless joined the masses lining up at hardware stores to grab the last remnants of “nylon sheets” and duct tape. So, I covered the windows with plastic, only to find my cats refusing to enter the living room when the sirens eventually went off, so I kept the door open.

The war deadline loomed:  17 January 1991, the start of the allied attack on Iraq. Since Saddam's missile threat would be retaliation for allied action, Israelis took the cue, especially those who felt more living more vulnerable in crowded cities with no bomb shelters. Tel Aviv emptied overnight, as cars headed in droves for the high road to the ‘safe haven’ of Jerusalem, or to any road leading out of the city. Anyone who had a car or relatives outside Tel Aviv left, many with rolled-up mattresses and suitcases strapped to their car roofs. 

Apartment buildings and entire streets became deserted. Schools were closed, and few ventured out with young children who had to be kept close to the "nylon tents" that provided their chemical warfare protection. 

Luckily, an old Yekke lady at the corner shop chose, like me, to stay so I at least had someone to chat with. For the first (and last) time in Tel Aviv's modern history, there were empty parking spaces on the street outside my building. I could get have become used to that, if the atmosphere hadn't become so sinister.  

A beach-goer runs with a baby for shelter as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets in Tel Aviv July 15, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Just as predicted, that first day after Desert Storm erupted, six Scud missiles landed in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.  

My editors at the time, safe in their Jerusalem Post offices in Romema, had no idea what life had become like in Tel Aviv and shooed me off to Scud missile landing sites. These locations were supposed to be top secret to avoid giving the Iraqis feedback on their targeting, but the foreign correspondents, unfettered by the military censorship gagging their Israeli colleagues, reported freely from the damaged sites. 

So, while Israeli radio and the local TV channels, who had pooled their broadcasts, blared orders for everyone to stay in their sealed rooms, I was dispatched to Tel Aviv’s southern Hatikva Quarter, the next-door city of Ramat Gan and even north to Herzliya, where a missile narrowly missed the shore buildings and fell into the sea. Not that I was the newspaper's only reporter based in peacetime in Tel Aviv, just the only one who still remained in the city.

Since, apart from the dusk missile warnings, not much was really happening, I joined a friend from another newspaper on a trip to northern Arab villages that were hosting Israelis who had fled from Tel Aviv. There were some striking lessons to be learned about coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel from this period. 

A woman lies with her baby on the floor of the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv as a siren warning of incoming rockets sounds. July 10, 2014.Credit: Reuters

The few who remained in Tel Aviv boasted of their courage with car bumper slogans declaring: "I stayed in Tel Aviv" and "I am a Patriot" (a pun on the Patriot missiles used to intercept incoming missiles).

The powers supposedly leading the people didn't exactly make life any easier. Mayor Shlomo Chich Lahat, from the safety of his Zahala home or his fortified shelter at City Hall, denounced his fellow Tel Avivians as “deserters,” for leaving the city to protect their families' lives – but the municipality he led had failed to provide adequate nearby shelters or protected concrete rooms for residential buildings in the city. 

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir simply vanished into a missile-proof underground command center, we thought – or perhaps, as we joked at the time, he had been abducted by aliens since his voice was not heard throughout the ordeal. His ministers also had apparently been silenced by the same aliens. All we had as the voice of the nation was Nachman Shai, the IDF spokesman. He robustly advised everyone to drink water. Lots of water. Well, it certainly helped us to get all those burekas down, as attested by some extra kilos that have doggedly persisted ever since.

Finally, the opposition leader and Tel Aviv apartment resident Yitzhak Rabin stepped out of the void and confided to a hysterical public that when the sirens went off, he and his family simply moved into their building's stairwell. A sigh of relief breathed through the half-empty city as many of those left behind followed his example. 

It is a truism that when something is broken, no matter how well you glue it back together, it can never be as strong as before. So just over a decade later, when President Son-of-Bush attacked Iraq again, the reflexive hysteria was almost instantaneous. It made no difference that Israel’s Military Intelligence and other experts repeatedly said that Saddam didn't have the biological warheads he hadn't had the first time, that he didn't threaten Israel and in any case, the U.S. had destroyed his launchers. In Tel Aviv, we thronged yet again to gas-mask distribution centers as the city once more adopted the role of “frontline” city.

In 2014, it was makeshift rockets from Gaza that sent Tel Avivians heading for shelter again. This time, however, they mostly stayed as calm as only the war-weary can, and having the protection of the Iron Dome system, leaving their cappuccinos to go to the nearest building as instructed and wait for the all clear. I was in one of the city’s largest malls, the Azrieli Center, one day when the siren sounded and everybody filed obediently into fortified areas – nobody seemed in the least perturbed. 

It would be hard to say if the Gulf War, a quarter of a century ago, ruined our sense of security irrevocably. Many who now live, work and party in Tel Aviv were born after that war, or were too young to remember much about it. And yet, when a lone gunman fired into a Tel Aviv pub on Dizengoff Street on the first day of this new year, the panic ran rampant again, as if forgotten nightmares from the past were coming back to haunt the city. 

For days the police kept a radio silence ordered by their new chief, a former Shin Bet man. Nobody had any idea what was going on, or if the killer was still at large in the city, and if he were, what did he look like? The political leaders also kept mum, except for the prime minister who hurried to Tel Aviv, not to inform and reassure the worried city folk, but to rail against the whole Israeli Arab community – those dangerous “droves” again. 

Once again, Tel Aviv citizens were sneered at for not drawing their guns and chasing the killer until they shot him dead, as their more vigilant (or vigilante) Jerusalem compatriots would undoubtedly have done.  Who knew normal people having a beer in a normal city pub on a Friday afternoon should have loaded guns on their hips ready for immediate action? 

Is that all we have learned? This time there was no plain-spoken Rabin to set things straight and tell Tel Avivians everything was OK. That there was not even Nachman Shai with a cool glass of water. 

It's hard to compare the First Gulf War to any traumatic event in the city in more recent years. Even the horrific events of the second intifada in which Tel Aviv suffered greatly didn’t compare, in my eyes, to the dread of thinking a toxic missile might crash through your home, and the rush to get small children into those plastic ‘protective boxes’ and the family into the sealed room. The external threat felt much more ominous than a “local” one.

The Gulf War showed how easy it is to burst the bubble of Tel Aviv's self-assurance. However after that and subsequent attacks, the city has ‘repaired’ itself with great resilience and normalcy and vibrancy returned, even if it still bears the memory of those faultlines. If this is what’s meant by the Tel Aviv bubble, then living in this fractured but invisibly restitched bubble is – and will continue to be - the new normal, for as long as the breaches are not irreparable.

Michal Yudelman O'Dwyer is a journalist, and translator for Haaretz English.

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