Myths & Facts Online

The Gulf Wars

By Mitchell G. Bard

“The 1991 Gulf War was fought for Israel.”
“Israel's low profile in the Gulf War proves it has no strategic value to the United States.”
“Israel benefitted from the Gulf War without paying any price.”
“Israel did nothing to protect Palestinians from Scud attacks.”
“Iraq was never a threat to Israel.”
“Saddam Hussein was never interested in acquiring nuclear weapons.”
“The PLO was neutral in the Gulf War.”
“The Gulf War demonstrated why Arab states need more U.S. weapons.”
“Iraq ceased to be a threat to Israel after the 1991 Gulf War.”
“American Jews goaded the United States to go to war against Iraq in 2003 to help Israel.”


"The 1991 Gulf War was fought for Israel."


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."1

A U.S. Patriot missile seeks
out an incoming SCUD

Over the course of the Gulf crisis, the President and other top Administration officials made clear 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 percent of Americans approved of the U.S. going to war with Iraq and 22 percent disapproved.2

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.

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's low profile in the Gulf War proves it has no strategic value to the United States."


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 themselves.

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. For example:

· 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 minefields.

· Mobile bridges flown directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia were employed by the U.S. Marine Corps.

· Israeli recommendations, based upon system performance observations, led to several software changes that made the Patriot a more capable missile defense system.

· Israel Aircraft Industries developed conformal fuel tanks that enhanced the range of F­15 aircraft. These were used in the Gulf.

· General Dynamics, a U.S. military contractor, 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 night-fighting capabilities.

· 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 Blackhawk helicopters.

· Israel provided other equipment to U.S. forces including flack vests, gas masks and sandbags.

· 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 the Gulf.

· 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.3


"Israel benefitted from the Gulf War without paying any price."


It is true that Israel benefitted 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 night.

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 billion.4

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.5

A UN 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.6 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.7


"Israel did nothing to protect Palestinians from Scud attacks."


The Los Angeles Times recognized Israel's dilemma in allocating gas masks for its population:

Gas-mask distribution throughout Israel was calculated according to estimates — based in part on Saddam Hussein's own prewar threats — of where the threat to the population was greatest. First call was given to the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal area, with its heavy and largely Jewish population density, as well as to Jerusalem, the second-largest city. Smaller urban areas were next given priority, followed by rural areas in Israel proper and finally the occupied territories. Experience has shown the soundness of this ranking. It is Israel's citizens who are most at threat from Iraq's outlawed weapons, not the Palestinians in the West Bank, who are Saddam's partisans.8

The vast majority of Palestinians made no secret of their support for Iraq, and many were seen on their rooftops cheering as Scuds rained on Israeli population centers.9 Because of their support for Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi dictator's professed concern for the Palestinians, Israel did not believe it was likely the territories would come under attack.

The Israeli courts subsequently ordered the military to distribute gas masks to all the residents of the territories. This was being done, though the war ended before all Palestinians had received them. No Palestinians were injured in any Scud attacks.


"Iraq was never a threat to Israel."


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."10

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.11 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.12

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."13

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.14 Britain's MI6 intelligence service prepared a secret assessment three years earlier that Hussein had ordered an all-out effort to develop nuclear weapons.15 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 the opportunity.

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.16 In addition, the two countries were said to have formed a joint air squadron.17 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.18 Given the history of Arab alliances forming as a prelude to planning an attack, Israel found these developments worrisome.

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.19 Iraq denied it was building a "supergun," but, after the war, it was learned that Iraq had built such a weapon.20

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 battle-tested 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.21

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."22 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. Absolutely, yes."23

Ultimately, Saddam carried out his threat.


"Saddam Hussein was never interested in acquiring nuclear weapons."


In 1981, Israel became convinced Iraq was approaching the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. To preempt the building of a weapon they believed 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 build at least one bomb.


"The PLO was neutral in the Gulf War."


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."24

PLO leader Yasser 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. According to the New York Times, Arafat "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.25

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.26

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."27 Abul Abbas, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, threatened that "any American target will become vulnerable" should the United States attack Iraq.28

In Jenin, on August 12, 1,000 Palestinians marched, shouting: "Saddam, you hero, attack Israel with chemical weapons."29

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."30


“Leaders of Israel's peace movement expressed their disgust for the PLO's actions. One would need a gas mask to overcome the "toxic, repulsive stench” of the PLO's attitude toward Saddam Hussein, Yossi Sarid said.31 Another activist, Yaron London, wrote in an open letter to the Palestinians in the territories: “This week you proved to me for many years I was a great fool. When you ask once again for my support for your 'legitimate rights,' you will discover that your shouts of encouragement to Saddam have clogged my ears.”32


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."33

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."34

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."35


"The Gulf War demonstrated why Arab states need more U.S. weapons."


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 states.

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.


"Iraq ceased to be a threat to Israel after the 1991 Gulf War."


Iraq does not share a border with Israel, but since 1948 it has been one of Israel's staunchest enemies. Iraq made Israel a prime target for attack during the Gulf War. While much of Iraq's arsenal of unconventional weaponry has been destroyed, Iraq still remains a long-term threat to Israel's security. Recent revelations that Iraq had biological warheads of anthrax and botulism toxin ready for use in 1990, and was close to completing its program to acquire a nuclear capability, underscore how close Israel and the Allied coalition came to disaster. Much of Baghdad's germ warfare arsenal remains unaccounted for.

Saddam is still clearly bent on rearming Iraq. Much of Iraq's chemical arsenal, nuclear facilities, and hundreds of mobile ballistic missiles survived the conflict intact and Iraq continues to resist UN efforts to destroy them. Although Iraq was forced to destroy many of its remaining Scud missiles, it is believed a large number may remain hidden. In addition, once sanctions are lifted, Baghdad could reproduce a nuclear device within three to five years and restockpile its deadly chemical agents in less than two years.

UN weapons inspectors were forced out of Iraq in 1998 and, two years later, Iraq launched a series of short-range ballistic missiles in tests to perfect a new system that could be used to build missiles with longer-range capabilities.36

The military complexes and missile research centers where the missile, dubbed the al-Samoud, is under development were heavily bombed in December 1998 by allied aircraft during Operation Desert Fox. The Pentagon, at the time, believed that Saddam Hussein’’s new missile activity was put out of commission for at least a year or two. In fact, the first launching of the missile came only six months later.

In January 2001, an Iraqi defector told the London Sunday Telegraph that Iraq had acquired two fully operational nuclear bombs and was working to construct more. This claim has been discounted, but numerous studies have reported that Saddam Hussein is anywhere from a few months to a few years away from the production of nuclear weapons and that the principal obstacle has been acquiring the necessary fissile material.37 No one questions Hussein's desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an extensive presentation to the UN Security Council in which he documented how Iraq concealed its weapons, deceived inspectors, and has continued to pursue a program to develop weapons of mass destruction in direct violation of UN resolutions. While he did not present evidence that Iraq has nuclear weapons, he did provide evidence that it does possess chemical and biological weapons, and has continued work on the development of nuclear weapons.38

Meanwhile, despite Iraq's agreement to comply with UN Resolution 687, which prohibits it from allowing any terrorist organizations to operate in its territory, Baghdad still maintains contact with, and provides sanctuary to, several groups and individuals involved in terrorism. Hussein has also publicly promised to pay $25,000 to the families of Palestinian terrorists.


“American Jews goaded the United States to go to war against Iraq in 2003 to help Israel.”


One of the most absurd arguments made by opponents of the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 2003 was that American Jews somehow were responsible for persuading President George W. Bush to launch the military campaign on Israel’s behalf. The truth is that President Bush decided that Iraq posed a threat to the United States because it possessed weapons of mass destruction and was pursuing a nuclear capability that could have been used directly against Americans or could have been transferred to terrorists who would use them against U.S. targets. The removal of Saddam Hussein was also designed to eliminate one of the principal sponsors of terrorism.

The war in Iraq liberated the Iraqi people from one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Even in the Arab world, where many people objected to the U.S. action, no Arab leader rose to Saddam Hussein’s defense.

It is true that Israel will benefit from the elimination of a regime that launched 39 missiles against it in 1991, paid Palestinians to encourage them to attack Israelis, and led a coalition of Arab states committed to Israel’s destruction. It is also true, however, that many Arab states benefitted from the removal of Saddam Hussein, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is why these nations allowed Allied forces to use their countries as bases for operations.

As for the role of American Jews, it is important to remember that Jews comprise less than 3 percent of the U.S. population and were hardly the most vocal advocates of the war. On the contrary, the Jewish community had divisions similar to those in the country as a whole and most major Jewish organizations purposely avoided taking any position on the war. Meanwhile, public opinion polls showed that a significant majority of all Americans supported the President’s policy toward Iraq.

Some critics have suggested that prominent Jewish officials in the Bush Administration pushed for the war. In fact, only a handful of officials in the Administration is Jewish, and not one of the President’s top advisers — the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Vice President, or National Security Adviser — is Jewish.

The suggestion that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States, or that they have undue influence on U.S. Middle East policy, is an example of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, some critics of the war on Iraq chose the age-old approach of blaming the Jews for a policy they disagreed with rather than addressing the substantive arguments in the debate.



1Washington Post, (August 3, 1990).
2Washington Post, (January 17, 1991).
33UPI, (March 8, 1991).
4Near East Report, (February 4, 1991).
5Jerusalem Post, (January 17, 1992).
6Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (April 14, 1999).
7Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (June 21, 2001).
8Los Angeles Times, (January 28, 1991).
9New York Post, (February 4, 1991).
10Reuters, (April 2, 1990).
11Reuters, (April 18, 1990).
12UPI, (April 22, 1990).
13Baghdad Domestic Service, (June 18, 1990).
14Washington Post, (March 29, 1990).
15Washington Times, (April 3, 1990).
16Al-Ittihad, (January 26, 1990).
17Radio Monte Carlo, (February 17, 1990).
18Al-Dustur, (February, 18, 1990).
19Reuters, (April 17, 1990).
20Washington Post, (August 14, 1991).
21Washington Post, (August 8, 1991).
22Reuters, (December 26, 1990).
23Transcript of January 9, 1991, press conference.
24Mideast Mirror, (August 6, 1990).
25New York Times, (August 5, 1990).
26Al-Ahram, (August 12, 1990).
27UPI, (August 10, 1990).
28Reuters, (September 4, 1990).
29Associated Press, (August 12, 1990).
30Jerusalem Post, (August 8, 1990).
31Ha'aretz, (August 17, 1990).
32Yediot Aharonot, (August 1990).
33Sawt al-Sha'b, (September 4, 1990).
34Agence France-Presse, (February 26, 1991).
35Baghdad Republic of Iraq Radio Network, (November 16, 1991).
36New York Times, (July 1, 2000).
37Jerusalem Post, (January 29, 2001).
38U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, address to the United Nations Security Council, (February 5, 2003).


Scud damage and stretcher photos from the National Photo Collection.

See also: History of Israel
The Gulf War

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