Arens: The fear was Saddam's next missile could be chemical

‘We’re going to attack Iraq,’ Israel told the US. ‘Move your planes’

On 27th anniversary of Saddam’s 1991 Scud missile strikes at Israel, Defense Ministry releases interviews with senior officials on how close Israel came to bombing Baghdad

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The destruction caused by an Iraqi Scud missile that hit the 'Danny House' in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood in January 1991. (Bamahane/
The destruction caused by an Iraqi Scud missile that hit the 'Danny House' in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood in January 1991. (Bamahane/

In the predawn hours of January 18, 1991, at the outbreak of the First Gulf War, the Iraqi army launched eight Scud missiles at Israel, hitting both Tel Aviv and Haifa, wounding seven people and causing damage to several residential buildings.

Saddam Hussein’s military went on to fire 30 more Scuds at central Israeli cities, killing two people in direct hits and 11 others indirectly from heart attacks and asphyxiation, and raising the possibility that Jerusalem would conduct retaliatory airstrikes on Iraqi targets.

Interviews from shortly after the war with then-defense minister Moshe Arens and -IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, which were released by the Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive on Thursday to mark the 27th anniversary of the Scud attacks, show how real the threat of an Israeli response was.

“It turns out that Arens called [then-US secretary of defense Dick] Cheney and told him, ‘OK, we’re going to attack, move your planes,” Shomron recalled in his interview.

Then-defense minister Moshe Arens, center, meets with former deputy IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak and former head of the southern command Yitzahk Mordechai in 1991. (Ofer Lafler/Israel Defense Forces/Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

In his interview, Arens confirmed that he’d said something along those lines.

“I spoke with Cheney on a special line almost every day. I told him, ‘We need to attack, we need to coordinate,'” he recalled.

Saddam Hussein during Iran-Iraqi war in the 1980s. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

“He was always trying to push me off. He said it required permission from the president and that there still wasn’t permission from the president so we couldn’t coordinate,” Arens said.

The United States was opposed to an Israeli intervention in the conflict, fearing that it would cause problems for some of the other coalition members, who wouldn’t want to be seen as fighting on the same side as Israel.

The coalition, therefore, engaged in what was known colloquially as “Scud hunting,” searching for the launchers from which the Iraqi army was firing the missiles not only at Israel, but also at Saudi Arabia, including one attack that hit a US Army barracks, killing 28 soldiers.

The destruction caused by an Iraqi Scud missile during the first Gulf War in January 1991. (Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

Arens noted that relatively few people were killed and injured in Israel, and said that there was a feeling that “the next missile could cause mass casualties, the next missile could be a chemical missile and the Americans aren’t succeeding in stopping it, so we have to.”

In his interview, Shomron noted that he and Arens did not always see eye to eye and that although he presented the government with plans for an attack, he personally opposed to carrying them out.

“If the government said to attack, we’d attack, but I recommended that we shouldn’t,” Shomron said. “If an hour later, a missile fell with poisonous gas that caused mass casualties, maybe I would recommend to attack. I wasn’t saying no attacking from now until the end of time.”

He recognized that it was not a popular stance among many in Israel at the time.

“People think, ‘They attack us and we don’t respond?’ That’s the reflex most people have. That’s how we were raised,” Shomron said.

The destruction caused by an Iraqi Scud missile during the first Gulf War in January 1991. (Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

“Arens always wanted to do something. He’d always bring us little missions. And I never wanted to do those little missions,” Shomron said.

“When do you lose your deterrence? When you do something little. Then they say, ‘This is all [the Israelis] can do,'” the former general said.

Dan Shomron, left, ending his tenure as IDF chief of staff, shakes hands with then-defense minister Moshe Arens in 1991. (Michael Weindraub/Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

In his interview, Arens said he didn’t recall Shomron being opposed to the plans for a retaliatory attack, which would have included not only airstrikes but also the dropping of ground forces in western Iraq.

“He didn’t really say the he didn’t recommend it. On the contrary! He presented the plan, and I approved the plan,” Arens said.

Shomron said some of the targets they’d picked out included one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and the Iraqi army’s general staff headquarters.

Moving to chemical attacks

The former army chief, who died in 2008, also discussed the real concern the military had about Saddam using chemical weapons against Israel in the months leading up to the war. He also noted that the army was preparing for the possibility that the Iraqi leader would embark on a full-scale blitz on the Middle East and try to take over Jordan and Syria.

“I didn’t know if they would fire missiles, but the possibility existed,” he said. “Military Intelligence couldn’t say if they would have a chemical warhead. It was definitely being developed, but it wasn’t clear if they existed yet for Hussein’s Scud missiles.

“There was an understanding that the Middle East was moving toward chemical attacks and putting chemical warheads on surface-to-surface missiles, which were hard to shoot down,” Shomron said.

The army chief noted that before the Gulf War, Israel’s air defenses were limited, lacking any real countermeasures against incoming missiles.

“No one in the world had a good answer for how to stop a surface-to-surface missile, and we definitely didn’t have one,” Shomron said.

A Patriot missile defense battery that was set up in Israel during the first Gulf War in January 1991. (Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

Following the initial barrage on January 18, the United States and Netherlands deployed the Patriot missile defense system in Israel, but it was of limited to no value.

Former Israeli Air Force pilot and military analyst Reuven Pedatzur later testified before the US Congress that “only one al-Hussein warhead was evidently hit by Patriot missiles.”

(The system has been upgraded numerous times since then and is considered far more effective now.)

In his interview, Arens recalled traveling to the US during the war to speak with then-president George H.W. Bush to convince him that Israel should conduct a retaliatory attack on Iraq, as the coalition wasn’t doing enough and the Patriot system was ineffective.

“There was an argument, and they said that their figures showed that they were succeeding in intercepting [Scud missiles]. I told them, ‘Look, I’m telling you they’re not. They haven’t intercepted one missile,” Arens said.

Shomron said that real concerns of chemical attacks led to the mass distribution of gas masks to Israeli citizens before the war.

“I recommended to the prime minister that we hand out gas masks to people instead of keeping them at collection centers, as we had been doing,” he said.

Israeli soldiers work in a command center wearing gas masks during the First Gulf War in 1991. (Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

“It’s better to hand them out when things are calm than in times of tension,” he recalled telling then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Ultimately, of course, Israel did not carry out any strikes against Iraq, mostly in light of the US pressure against it.

Though he was in favor of it at the time, in his interview Arens acknowledged that Israel as a country lost little of its deterrent power due to its decision to sit tight, though he said it may have cost Shamir the 1992 election.

“Maybe we lost a little [deterrence] in the one or two years that this was still in the memories of people that struck us, but Israel is very strong and has gotten stronger since then,” Arens said.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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