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Gas masks, missiles and irony: Defense Ministry releases photos of 1991 Gulf War

Military archive marks 30 years since the conflict, when Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles at Israel, with never-before-seen video, images and internal documents

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • Israelis walk by graffiti reading, 'How many times did you seal the room and nothing happened,' referencing Rafi Persky song, in regard to the Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 First Gulf War, which Israeli feared would carry chemical or biological weapons. (Alex Lebac/Defense Ministry Archive)
    Israelis walk by graffiti reading, 'How many times did you seal the room and nothing happened,' referencing Rafi Persky song, in regard to the Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 First Gulf War, which Israeli feared would carry chemical or biological weapons. (Alex Lebac/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • An American Patriot missile defense system that was deployed in Israel in response to a series of Scud missile attacks by Iraq during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
    An American Patriot missile defense system that was deployed in Israel in response to a series of Scud missile attacks by Iraq during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • Military officials in a command center wear gas masks during a Scud missile attack on Israel during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind, Asaf Topaz and Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)
    Military officials in a command center wear gas masks during a Scud missile attack on Israel during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind, Asaf Topaz and Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • Israeli children pull down protective plastic sheeting from windows that was meant to protect them from chemical weapons in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)
    Israeli children pull down protective plastic sheeting from windows that was meant to protect them from chemical weapons in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • Military personnel inspect a building that was hit by a Scud missile fired by Iraq during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
    Military personnel inspect a building that was hit by a Scud missile fired by Iraq during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • An Israeli soldier operates a Hawk surface-to-air missile system during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Asaf Topaz/Defense Ministry Archive)
    An Israeli soldier operates a Hawk surface-to-air missile system during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Asaf Topaz/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • An Israeli apartment building that was rebuilt after it was destroyed in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
    An Israeli apartment building that was rebuilt after it was destroyed in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
  • An Israeli apartment building that was destroyed in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
    An Israeli apartment building that was destroyed in a Scud missile attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
  • A man on the beach reads a newspaper with the headline, 'Bush: We won; a ceasefire,' referring to the end of the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
    A man on the beach reads a newspaper with the headline, 'Bush: We won; a ceasefire,' referring to the end of the 1991 First Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)
  • Israeli stand outside holding gas masks in cardboard boxes and one man holds a protective baby carrier for fear of a chemical weapon attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
    Israeli stand outside holding gas masks in cardboard boxes and one man holds a protective baby carrier for fear of a chemical weapon attack during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)
  • An Israeli family wears gas masks for fear of a chemical weapon attack during the 1991 Gulf War. (Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)
    An Israeli family wears gas masks for fear of a chemical weapon attack during the 1991 Gulf War. (Michael Tzarfati/Defense Ministry Archive)

Marking 30 years since the Gulf War, the Defense Ministry on Wednesday published never-before-released photographs and video footage from the conflict, in which Iraq fired 43 Scud missiles at Israel.

The images show the actions of the military during the war as well as the lives of Israeli civilians who were required to keep gas masks with them at all times — including on the beach — and to seal their homes with plastic sheeting and tape out of fears that the missiles being fired from Iraq would have chemical or biological warheads.

In the end, no weapons of mass destruction were used against Israel. The general understanding is that the Scud missile attacks were meant to provoke Israel to respond, so that Saddam Hussein could use Israeli participation as a way to drive a wedge between the countries that made up the coalition opposing his conquest of Kuwait.

To prevent such a situation, the United States deployed Patriot missile defense batteries in Israel. These air defenses failed to intercept the vast majority of the Scud missiles — according to some accounts, it shot down just one — but they did raise the morale of a country feeling helpless in the face of attacks that it was not actively doing anything to prevent.

The barrages began on the night between January 17 and 18, 1991, and continued through February 25, 1991.

In addition to the photographs and video footage released by the Defense Ministry Archive on Wednesday, two top-secret Israel Defense Forces documents were declassified. One showed the military’s official tally of the attacks from a December 2002 investigation by the IDF’s Operations Directorate and another was the official logbook where the details of Scud launches and the orders that were subsequently given to IDF troops were recorded at the time.

The IDF’s 2002 tally differs slightly from the official figures used by Israel today, though it is not clear what accounts for the difference.

According to the military count, 43 Scud missiles were fired at Israel in 18 barrages over the course of 39 days, whereas the Foreign Ministry today says it was “approximately 38” in 19 fusillades. During that time, according to the IDF report, 54 American Patriot interceptor missiles were fired at the incoming Scuds.

The approximate locations of the impact sites of the Scud missiles that were fired at Israel by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, as seen in a 2002 report by the Israel Defense Forces’ Operations Directorate. (Defense Ministry Archive)

According to the 2002 military tally, 14 people were killed during the attacks in total. The official tally today is 13. According to the Foreign Ministry, two people were killed by missile strikes, four suffered heart attacks during the barrages and seven people died as a result of incorrectly using the atomic-biological-chemical warfare kits that everyone in the country was required to carry with them at all times.

The IDF’s report says 229 people were directly injured by the missiles — compared to 208 in the Foreign Ministry’s tally — and 222 people unnecessarily injected themselves with atropine, a drug used to counteract the effects of nerve gas. The Foreign Ministry lists 225 such cases. According to the military count, there were 530 people who suffered anxiety attacks during the Scud barrages.

In total, according to the Foreign Ministry, 1,302 houses, 6,142 apartments, 23 public buildings, 200 shops and 50 cars were damaged in the attacks.

The Operations Directorate report includes a map of the approximate locations of where the Scud missiles landed. The majority — 26 out of 43 — struck the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Eight landed near the northern city of Haifa, four landed in the northern West Bank and five struck in the desert, near the Dimona nuclear reactor.

Two young Israelis sit on the beach next to their gas masks during the 1991 Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)

The military’s logbook includes not only the orders and assessments from the time — “There is a growing likelihood of missile impacts later today. We should increase readiness” — but also the doodles and drawings of the soldiers who kept the records. Starbursts from the corners of spreadsheet cells and random geometric figures adorn the pages.

One sheet, for whatever reason, has the first line of the Bobby Vinton song, “She wore blue velvet,” scrawled across the top, just before the report: “Four missiles struck inside the territory of the [regional] command, which caused 12 injuries.”

“War” is written repeatedly on one otherwise empty page of the logbook. Another page that lists “one not minor but serious injury” at 12:15 a.m. is decorated with a peace sign and lotus flower. Another page contains nothing but a drawing of a Patriot missile intercepting a “Skad” missile with a cartoonish explosion and the word “Boom,” with the caption, “We won’t, won’t, won’t let Saddam…”

A cartoon of a Patriot missile intercepting an incoming Iraqi Scud missile that was drawn by an on-duty soldier in the military’s official logbook during the 1991 Gulf War. (Defense Ministry Archive)

The photographs indicate a similar tension between the severity of the moment and the Israeli tendency to carry on as normal.

Two young Israelis grab some sun on the beach, sitting back-to-back on a towel, with their gas masks just next to them.

In others, Israelis are seen celebrating on the street with American soldiers with an accordion, a plastic tambourine, spray foam and Israeli flags, while wearing their gas masks.

In one photograph, graffiti from that time can be seen, reading, “How many times didja seal the room and nothing happened,” referencing a popular song, which has the line, “How many times did you count to ten and nothing happened.”

The 1991 Gulf War left its mark on Israel, inspiring the creation of the IDF Home Front Command, which has played a critical role in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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