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This Week in History: Saddam Terrorizes Israel


On January 17, 1991, the United States and a coalition of Arab and Western countries began bombarding Iraq to force its withdrawal from neighboring Kuwait, which it had invaded five months earlier. The war had further-reaching consequences than just Iraq’s control over Gulf oil fields, however. Making good on his threats, Saddam Hussein would fire dozens of SCUD missiles at Israel, his retaliation for the war being launched against him. Additionally, the war would have serious consequences for Palestinians living in the Gulf and for the international standing of the PLO leadership.

From the beginning, the then-Iraqi president attempted to create linkage between the international effort aimed at forcing his withdrawal from Kuwait and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In one of his first attempts to prevent Western military action against his country, Hussein – who was a staunch ally of then PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat – proposed “that all cases of occupation, and those cases that have been portrayed as occupation, in the region, be resolved simultaneously.” For a number of reasons, primarily the West’s refusal to give the perception that the invasion be rewarded in any way, his offer was immediately rebuffed.

But Saddam’s attempt to draw Israel into the war was much more strategic than ideological. Hussein knew that if Israel were to enter the war, the Arab allies brought into the coalition by the US would be faced with a much more complicated situation. Both Saddam and the West believed they would withdraw their support from the war effort. For this reason, then-US president George H.W. Bush spent a great deal of time pressuring Israel not to retaliate against the SCUD missiles.

In order to prevent they type of extensive damage that might trigger and Israeli strike on Iraq, the United States quickly deployed Patriot missile defense batteries in Israel and reportedly dedicated one third of its war efforts in Iraq to destroying Saddam’s SCUD launching capabilities, no easy task considering they were mounted on mobile truck launchers and spread throughout the western Iraqi desert.

When the first SCUDS were launched from Iraq into central Israel on January 17, 1991, Israel was nonetheless prepared to strike back. Israeli Air Force jets did in fact begin flying near the Gulf country’s western border, but never initiated an attack. Days after the first SCUDS exploded, a covert commando mission was prepared, with elite Israeli special forces troops actually loaded onto helicopters for rapid deployment to Iraq. A phone call from the highest echelons in Washington, however, kept the aircraft on the tarmac.

But while in the West the imagery and collective memory of the Gulf War was of “the first televised war,” with live nightly CNN broadcasts showing for the first time cruise missile launches from the decks of American warships, in Israel, the imagery and memories were very different.

One of the most lasting images of the Gulf War in Israel is of then-IDF Spokesman Nachman Shai, today a Kadima MK, going on state television telling residents to stay in the “sealed rooms” they had been asked to prepare ahead of the conflict. Shai has since been mocked for constantly reminding Israelis to “drink water,” but at the time, the situation was one of trauma for the country, especially in the Center, which was struck by 42 SCUDs during the six-week war.

Israel – and the West – feared at the time that Saddam Hussein had loaded his missiles with Sarin or nerve gas, a fear which was not realized. But in order to protect itself against the threat that was very real at the time, Israel had equipped all its residents with gas masks. The code phrase instructing Israelis to put on their masks, “Nahash Tsefa” (Viper Snake), broadcast along with the familiar Israeli sound of the rising and falling air raid siren, is still closely associated with the period among Israelis old enough to remember.

Although only two Israelis were killed by direct hits from SCUD missiles, thousands were injured and the projectiles were proven effective as a weapon of terror. A number of Israelis were also hospitalized after injecting themselves with the nerve gas antidote they had been equipped with and others suffered heart attacks and strokes as missiles rained down on the country, indicative of the panicked mindset. Although the direct casualties were relatively low considering the payloads fired, thousands were left homeless by the destruction caused.

Separately, Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the war had lasting consequences on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and on Palestinians living in other countries. In retaliation for Arafat’s support of Saddam, following the war, Kuwait expelled nearly half a million Palestinians living in the country in what has been described as ethnic cleansing. Before the war, Palestinians had made up some 30 percent of Kuwait’s population, compared to only 3% after. Additionally, Arafat’s support for Saddam led to increased isolation of the Palestinian leadership following the war.

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