The Gulf War
(August 1990 - February 1991)
by Mitchell Bard
The Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm or the First Gulf War, was a U.N.-authorized coalition campaign led by the United States in reponse to Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of neighboring Kuwait. While Israel did not take part in the war from a military standpoint, the home front was bombarded with SCUD missiles from Iraq after Hussein followed through on threats to target Israel if coalition forces invaded Iraq.
- Saddam's Threats
- The Nuclear Danger
- American Interests Threatened
- Israel Aids the Allied War Effort
- The Cost of War
- PLO Backs Saddam
- U.S. Arms Couldn't Save Gulf States
Since coming to power, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been a leader of the rejectionist Arab
states and one of the most belligerent foes of Israel.
On April 2, 1990, Saddam's rhetoric became more threatening: "I
swear to God we will let our fire eat half of Israel if it tries to
wage anything against Iraq." Saddam said his nation's chemical
weapons capability was matched only by that of the United States and
the Soviet Union, and that he would annihilate anyone who threatened
Iraq with an atomic bomb by the "double chemical" (Reuters,
April 2, 1990).
Several days later, Saddam said that war with
Israel would not end until all Israeli-held territory was restored to
Arab hands. He added that Iraq could launch chemical weapons at Israel
from several different sites (Reuters, April 18, 1990). The Iraqi
leader also made the alarming disclosure that his commanders had the
freedom to launch attacks against Israel without consulting the high
command if Israel attacked Iraq. The head of the Iraqi Air Force
subsequently said he had orders to strike Israel if the Jewish State
launched a raid against Iraq or any other Arab country (UPI, April 22,
On June 18, 1990, Saddam told an Islamic Conference
meeting in Baghdad: "We will strike at [the Israelis] with all
the arms in our possession if they attack Iraq or the Arabs." He
declared "Palestine has been stolen," and exhorted the Arab
world to "recover the usurped rights in Palestine and free
Jerusalem from Zionist captivity" (Baghdad Domestic Service, June
Saddam's threat came in the wake of revelations
that Britain and the United States foiled an attempt to smuggle
American-made "krytron" nuclear triggers to Iraq (Washington
Post, March 29, 1990). Britain's MI6 intelligence service prepared
a secret assessment three years earlier that Hussein had ordered an
all-out effort to develop nuclear weapons (Washington Times,
April 3, 1990). After Saddam used chemical weapons against his own
Kurdish population in Halabja in 1988, few people doubted his
willingness to use nuclear weapons against Jews in Israel if he had
Israeli fears were further raised by reports in the
Arabic press, beginning in January 1990, that Jordan and Iraq had
formed "joint military battalions" drawn from the various
ground, air and naval units. "These battalions will serve as
emergency forces to confront any foreign challenge or threat to either
of the two countries," one newspaper said (AlIttihad,
January 26, 1990). In addition, the two countries were said to have
formed a joint air squadron (Radio Monte Carlo, February 17, 1990).
This was to be the first step toward a unified Arab corps, Jordanian
columnist Mu'nis al-Razzaz disclosed. "If we do not hurry up and
start forming a unified military Arab force, we will not be able to
confront the Zionist ambitions supported by U.S. aid," he said (Al-Dustur,
February, 18, 1990). Given the history of Arab alliances forming as a
prelude to planning an attack, Israel found these developments
In April 1990, British customs officers found tubes
about to be loaded onto an Iraqi-chartered ship that were believed to
be part of a giant cannon that would enable Baghdad to lob nuclear or
chemical missiles into Israel or Iran (Reuters, April 17, 1990). Iraq
denied it was building a "supergun," but, after the war, it
was learned that Iraq had built such a weapon (Washington Post,
August 14, 1991).
Iraq emerged from its war with Iran with one of the
largest and best-equipped military forces in the world. In fact, Iraq
had one million battletested troops, more than 700 combat aircraft,
6,000 tanks, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons. Although the
U.S. and its allies won a quick victory, the magnitude of Hussein's
arsenal only became clear after the war when UN investigators found
evidence of a vast program to build chemical and nuclear weapons (Washington
Post, August 8, 1991).
Iraq also served as a base for several terrorist
groups that menaced Israel, including the PLO and Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait,
Saddam Hussein consistently threatened to strike Israel if his country
was attacked. If the U.S. moves against Iraq, he said in December
1990, "then Tel Aviv will receive the next attack, whether or not
Israel takes part" (Reuters, December 26, 1990). At a press
conference, following his January 9, 1991, meeting with Secretary of
State James Baker, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was asked if the
war starts, would Iraq attack Israel. He replied bluntly: "Yes.
Ultimately, Saddam carried out his threat.
The Nuclear Danger
In 1981, Israel became convinced Iraq was
approaching the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. To preempt the
building of a weapon that would undoubtedly be directed against them,
the Israelis launched their surprise attack destroying the
Osirak nuclear complex. At the time, Israel was widely criticized.
On June 19, the UN Security
Council unanimously condemned the raid. Critics minimized the
importance of Iraq's nuclear program, claiming that because Baghdad
had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and permitted its
facilities to be inspected, Israeli fears were baseless.
It was not until after Iraq invaded Kuwait that
U.S. officials began to acknowledge publicly that Baghdad was
developing nuclear weapons and that it was far closer to reaching its
goal than previously thought. Again, many critics argued the
Administration was only seeking a justification for a war with Iraq.
Months later, after allied forces had announced the
destruction of Iraq's nuclear facilities, UN inspectors found Saddam's program to develop weapons was far more
extensive than even the Israelis believed. Analysts had thought Iraq
was incapable of enriching uranium for bombs, but Saddam's researchers
used several methods (including one thought to be obsolete) that were
believed to have made it possible for Iraq to have built at least one
American Interests Are
Prior to President George Bush's announcement of
Operation Desert Storm, critics of Israel were claiming the Jewish
State and its supporters were pushing Washington to start a war with
Iraq to eliminate it as a military threat. President Bush made the
U.S. position clear, however, in his speech on August 2, 1990, saying
that the United States has "longstanding vital interests"
in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Iraq's "naked aggression"
violated the UN charter. The
President expressed concern for other small nations in the area as
well as American citizens living or working in the region. "I
view a fundamental responsibility of my Presidency [as being] to
protect American citizens" (Washington Post, August 3,
Over the course of the Gulf crisis, the President
and other top Administration officials made clear the view that U.S.
interests-primarily oil supplies-were threatened by the Iraqi invasion
of Kuwait. Most Americans agreed with the President's decision to go
to war. For example, the Washington Post/ABC News Poll on
January 16, 1991, found that 76% of Americans approved of the U.S.
going to war with Iraq and 22% disapproved (Washington Post,
January 17, 1991).
It is true that Israel viewed Iraq as a serious threat
to its security given its leadership of the rejectionist camp. Israeli
concerns proved justified after the war began and Iraq fired 39 Scud
missiles at its civilian population centers. The Bush Administration
had promised to prevent Iraq from attacking Israel, but the U.S. troops
assigned to scour the desert for Scud missiles had poor intelligence
and failed to destroy a single real missile (they did destroy several
decoys) in nearly 2,500 missions (Jerusalem Post, January 30,
Israel has never asked American troops to fight its
battles. Although Israeli forces were prepared to participate in the
Gulf War, they did not because the United States asked them not to.
Even after the provocation of the Scud missile attacks, Israel
assented to U.S. appeals not to respond.
Israel Aids Allied War
Israel was never expected to play a major role in
hostilities in the Gulf. American officials knew the Arabs would not
allow Israel to help defend them; they also knew U.S. troops would
have to intervene because the Gulf states could not protect
Israel's posture reflected a deliberate political
decision in response to American requests. Nevertheless, it did aid
the United States' successful campaign to roll back Iraq's aggression.
- The IDF was the sole
military force in the region that could successfully challenge the
Iraqi army. That fact, which Saddam Hussein understood, was a
deterrent to further Iraqi aggression.
- By warning that it
would take military measures if any Iraqi troops entered Jordan,
Israel, in effect, guaranteed its neighbor's territorial integrity
against Iraqi aggression.
- The United States
benefited from the use of Israeli-made Have Nap air-launched missiles
on its B52 bombers. The Navy, meanwhile, used Israeli Pioneer
pilotless drones for reconnaissance in the Gulf.
- Israel provided mine
plows that were used to clear paths for allied forces through Iraqi
- Mobile bridges flown
directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia were employed by the U.S. Marine
recommendations, based upon system performance observations, led to
several software changes that made the Patriot a more capable missile
- Israel Aircraft
Industries developed conformal fuel tanks that enhanced the range of F15
aircraft. These were used in the Gulf.
- General Dynamics has
implemented a variety of Israeli modifications to improve the
worldwide F16 aircraft fleet, including structural enhancements,
software changes, increased capability landing gear, radio
improvements and avionic modifications.
- An Israeli-produced
targeting system was used to increase the Cobra helicopter's
- Israel manufactured
the canister for the highly successful Tomahawk missile.
- Night-vision goggles
used by U.S. forces were supplied by Israel.
- A low-altitude
warning system produced and developed in Israel was utilized on
- Other Israeli
equipment provided to U.S. forces included flack vests, gas masks and
- Israel offered the
United States the use of military and hospital facilities. U.S. ships
utilized Haifa port shipyard maintenance and support on their way to
- Israel destroyed
Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Consequently, U.S. troops did not face
a nuclear-armed Iraq.
- Even in its
low-profile mode, Israeli cooperation was extremely valuable: Israel's
military intelligence had focused on Iraq much more carefully over the
years than had the U.S. intelligence community. Thus, the Israelis
were able to provide Washington with detailed tactical intelligence on
Iraqi military activities. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said, for
example, that the U.S. utilized Israeli information about western Iraq
in its search for Scud missile launchers (UPI, March 8, 1991).
- Before, during and after the war, Israel also contributed
intelligence to the United States.
- Rafael designed the Litening Targeting Pods used
to fire precision weapons from the Marines' AV-8B Harrier jets, as well
as F-15s and F-16s. Limited use was also made of an Israeli helmet system
that allows a pilot to more easily target the enemy without maneuvering
the aircraft into attack position.
During a visit to Israel May 30, 1991, Defense Secretary
Cheney said: "We think that the cooperation that
we were able to engage in during the war in the Gulf...emphasizes
how important the [U.S.-Israel] relationship is and
how well it works when put to the test."
Critics have argued that the U.S. desire for Israel
to maintain a low profile to facilitate holding the
coalition of Arab states opposing Iraq together reflects
a diminution of Israel's strategic value; however, Israel
was never expected to play a major role in hostilities
in the Gulf. American officials knew the Arabs would
have to be prepared to defend themselves. Moreover,
the fact that it was possible to build this U.S.-Arab
coalition at the same time U.S.-Israel strategic relations
are closer than ever, illustrates the two are not contradictory.
The United States can continue to strengthen its ties
with Israel without worrying about jeopardizing ties
with the Arab states.
The Cost of War
Israel benefited from the destruction of Iraq's
military capability by the United States-led coalition, but the cost
was enormous. Even before hostilities broke out, Israel had to revise
its defense budget to maintain its forces at a heightened state of
alert. The Iraqi missile attacks justified Israel's prudence in
keeping its air force flying round the clock. The war required the
defense budget to be increased by more than $500 million. Another $100
million boost was needed for civil defense.
The damage caused by the 39 Iraqi Scud missiles
that landed in Tel
Aviv and Haifa was extensive. Approximately 3,300 apartments and other buildings were
affected in the greater Tel Aviv area. Some 1,150 people who were
evacuated had to be housed at a dozen hotels at a cost of $20,000 per
Beyond the direct costs of military preparedness
and damage to property, the Israeli economy was also hurt by the
inability of many Israelis to work under the emergency conditions. The
economy functioned at no more than 75 percent of normal capacity
during the war, resulting in a net loss to the country of $3.2
The biggest cost was in human lives. A total of 74
people died as a consequence of Scud attacks. Two died in direct hits,
four from suffocation in gas masks and the rest from heart attacks (Jerusalem
Post, January 17, 1992).
A U.N. committee dealing
with reparation claims against Iraq dating to the 1991 Gulf
War approved more than $31 million to be paid to Israeli businesses
and individuals. The 1999 decision stemmed from a 1992 Security
Council decision calling on Iraq to compensate victims of the Gulf
War (JTA, 4/14/99).
In 2001, the United Nations Compensation Commission awarded $74 million
to Israel for the costs it incurred from Iraqi Scud missile attacks
during the Gulf
War. The Commission rejected most of the $1 billion that Israel
had requested (JTA,
The PLO Backs Saddam
The PLO, Libya and Iraq were the only members who
opposed an Arab League resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The intifada leadership
sent a cable of congratulations to Saddam Hussein, describing the
invasion of Kuwait as the first step toward the "liberation of
Palestine" (Mideast Mirror, August 6, 1990).
PLO leader Yasir
Arafat played a critical role in sabotaging an Arab summit meeting
that was to have been convened in Saudi
Arabia to deal with the invasion. Arafat, the New York Times observed (August 5, 1990), "diverted attention from the planned
summit and helped capsize it" by showing up in Egypt with a
"peace plan" devised by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
According to an eyewitness account by Al-Ahram editor Ibrahim Nafei, Arafat worked hard to "water down" any
anti-Iraq resolution at the August 1990 Arab League meeting in Cairo.
Arafat "moved from delegation to delegation, hand in hand with
Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who was openly threatening
some Gulf and other Arab delegates that Iraq would turn them upside
down," Nafei wrote (Al-Ahram, August 12, 1990).
In Amman, Jordan,
a PLO official warned that Palestinian fighters had arrived in Yemen.
"We expect them to take suicidal operations against the American
troops in Saudi Arabia if the Americans move against Iraq," he
declared. "There are more than 50,000 Palestinian fighters"
in both Kuwait and Iraq, he said, who "will defend the interests
of Iraq" (UPI, August 10, 1990). Abul Abbas, a member of the PLO
Executive Committee, threatened that "any American target will
become vulnerable" should the United States attack Iraq (Reuters,
September 4, 1990).
In Jenin, August 12, 1,000 Palestinians marched,
shouting: "Saddam, you hero, attack Israel with chemical
weapons" (Associated Press, August 12, 1990).
According to some sources, the PLO played an active
role in facilitating Iraq's conquest of Kuwait. The logistical
planning for the Iraqi invasion was at least partially based on
intelligence supplied by PLO officials and supporters based in Kuwait.
One Arab diplomat was quoted in the London Independent as saying that
on arrival in Kuwait, Iraqi officials "went straight to their
homes, picked them up and ordered them to go to work." The Iraqi
Embassy had compiled its own list of key Kuwaiti personnel, said the
diplomat, "but who helped them? Who were the skilled technicians
who worked alongside the Kuwaitis and knew all this information?"
he asked. "The Palestinians" (Jerusalem Post, August
When the U.S. began massing troops in Saudi Arabia,
Arafat called this a "new crusade" that "forebodes the
gravest dangers and disasters for our Arab and Islamic nation."
He also made clear his position on the conflict: "We can only be
in the trench hostile to Zionism and its imperialist allies who are
today mobilizing their tanks, planes, and all their advanced and
sophisticated war machine against our Arab nation" (Sawt al-Sha'b,
September 4, 1990).
Once the war began, the PLO Executive Committee
reaffirmed its support for Iraq: "The Palestinian people stand
firmly by Iraq's side." The following day, Arafat sent a message
to Saddam hailing Iraq's struggle against "American
dictatorship" and describing Iraq as "the defender of the
Arab nation, of Muslims and of free men everywhere" (Agence
France-Presse, February 26, 1991).
Arafat's enthusiasm for Hussein was undaunted by
the outcome of the war. "I would like to take this opportunity to
renew to your excellency the great pride that we take in the ties of
fraternity and common destiny binding us," he said in November
1991. "Let us work together until we achieve victory and regain
liberated Jerusalem" (Baghdad Republic of Iraq Radio Network,
November 16, 1991).
U.S. Arms Couldn't Save
Iraq had one of the largest and most powerful
armies in the world prior to its invasion of Kuwait. None of the Gulf
states could have challenged the Iraqis without direct U.S.
intervention. Kuwait is a tiny nation, which had received $5 billion
worth of arms and yet never had any chance to stop Iraq.
Similarly, the United States has sold Saudi Arabia
more than $40 billion worth of arms and military services in the last
decade, yet, it too, could not have prevented an Iraqi invasion. It
was this realization that ultimately led King Fahd to allow U.S.
troops to be based in his country. No amount of military hardware
could compensate for the small size of the standing armies in these
Moreover, the rapidity with which Iraq overran
Kuwait was a reminder that U.S. weapons could easily fall into hostile
hands. For example, Iraq captured 150 U.S.-made HAWK antiaircraft
missiles and some armored vehicles from Kuwait.