The Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm or the First Gulf War, was a UN-authorized coalition campaign led by the United States in response 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.
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, 1990).
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 18, 1990).
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 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 (Al-Ittihad, 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 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 (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. Absolutely, yes.”
Ultimately, Saddam carried out his threat.
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 bomb.
Prior to President George Bush’s announcement of Operation Desert Storm on January 16, 1991, 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, 1990).
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, 2003).
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 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 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.
- Other Israeli equipment provided to U.S. forces included 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 (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.
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 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.
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, April 14, 1999). 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, June 21, 2001).
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 8, 1990).
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).
IDF Special Forces had plans to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1992. Special Forces trained to assassinate Saddam in an operation that would have landed commandos in Iraq and fired missiles at him during his father-in-law’s funeral. The plan was called off after five soldiers were killed in a training exercise, in which a dummy missile was replaced with a real missile. Ephraim Sneh, formerly Minister of Transportation and a sitting member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in 1992, said that the late-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had ordered the operation. Critics warned that the plan, whether successful or not, could bring an Iraqi biological weapons attack on Israel.
Israeli military censors had censored the story until Saddam’s capture by U.S. forces. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon called the release of the story “irresponsible.”
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.