On this day: Iraq attacks Israel

January 18 1991: Scud missiles hit Israel

By Jennifer Lipman, January 18, 2011

After the US-lead forces launched Operation Desert Storm, Iraq aimed Scud missiles at the bustling Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The move was not unexpected; when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait the previous summer he did so alongside vocal threats to "burn half of Israel". And after Desert Storm began, an Iraqi radio broadcast recorded Hussein proclaiming: “The great duel, the mother of all battles has begun. The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins."

The missiles, armed with conventional high explosives, hit in the early hours of the morning, as Israel slept. There were no deaths initially and only minor injuries but, as the first time in Israeli history Tel Aviv had been attacked, they represented a major threat to the country’s security.

Over the course of the Gulf War, some 39 of the weapons would be fired at Israel. In total, two Israelis died, although several suffered heart attacks triggered by the shock, and more than 200 people were injured, while Israelis sought gas masks and injected chemicals to protect themselves. Houses, shops and cars were also damaged in the six-week onslaught.

The government of the time, fronted by Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud party, did not retaliate. Aware this was what Hussein was banking on, because Israel’s presence in a coalition would likely push out Arab support for the war or even trigger them to support Iraq, President George HW Bush called on Shamir not to take unilateral action but to let the Allied forces respond.

On February 28, Bush declared a ceasefire. Saddam Hussein would remain in power until the next allied invasion of Iraq. Whatever else its consequences, the Gulf War and theattacks on Israel left Hussein a heroic figure for the Palestinians.

What the JC said: Under the guidance of psychologists, teachers held meetings to discuss how best to help children recover from the trauma of a week which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir likened to London's Second World War blitz...in Tel Aviv - the main target of the attacks - sales of Valium skyrocketed. Thousands of residents - "refugees" even though they drive away without furniture on their roofs - headed for the relative safety of hotels in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea or Eilat.

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Last updated: 8:46am, January 18 2011