Behind the Headlines: Israelis Remember the Gulf War More with Nostalgia Than Trauma
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Behind the Headlines: Israelis Remember the Gulf War More with Nostalgia Than Trauma

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As its first anniversary approached this week, Israelis were looking back at the Persian Gulf War as if it were a really good horror movie: full of startling and terrifying scenes, but in the end harmless and worth returning to from time to time.

It is more with nostalgia than with emotional trauma that the public is recalling the war, in which Israel was the only non-belligerent target of Iraqi missile attacks.

The war began on Jan. 17, 1991, when the United States led a 28-nation coalition into battle to oust the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. Only hours later, the first Iraqi Scud missiles crashed into Tel Aviv and Haifa.

A total of 39 missiles landed on Israeli territory during the six weeks of fighting. They did considerable property damage but inflicted few casualties.

They were far less devastating in that respect than the Nazi “buzz bombs” and V-2 rockets that hit London in 1944, which were technologically a half-century behind the Scuds.

And the dreaded chemical warfare attacks never materialized.

For those reasons, perhaps, most Israelis can shrug off the Gulf war. Some even recall it wistfully as a time of national togetherness. And for many youngsters, it is a fondly remembered time of no school.

Israel Television devoted Saturday night to an hour-long program memorializing the war, but in a satirical vein.

The joke was a neurotic Israeli who refuses to leave his gas-proof sealed room for fear that the Scuds are still falling. The idea, of course, was lifted from apocryphal tales of Japanese soldiers still hiding in the jungles of the South Pacific, unaware that World War II is over.

On Sunday night, another hour was devoted to the interesting but largely irrelevant question of whether women sacrificed more than men during the war. The program also asked whether it was really necessary to close the schools and shops, thereby imposing partial paralysis on the economy.


For 16-year-old Hanna Lander, the Gulf war anniversary will be an occasion for high jinks. She and her classmates plan to seal off their high school classroom and lock their teacher out.

Psychologists could attribute the blase reaction of Israelis a year later to a relief syndrome. Events were not as horrible as feared.

But at the time, no one could foresee that.

When the first Scuds landed, they brought warfare to the front door of the civilian population for the first time since Israel fought for its independence in 1948. People feared their cities would be bombed to ruins, their children poisoned by lethal gas.

In actuality, only two people died as the result of a missile hit.

A few small children were suffocated because their parents mishandled the gas-proof nylon kits issued them. And a few elderly people had heart attacks brought on by the excitement of air raid sirens and dramatic announcements on television.

The contrast was sharp between the deep apprehension of the wartime nights, when the Scuds fell, and the war’s anti-climactic aftermath, which found Israel only slightly bruised.

The relief was indeed like awaking from a nightmare and realizing it was only a dream.

Of course, that did not apply to families who were bombed out of house and home, and who had to spend the ensuing months in hotel rooms. It may not apply to children who saw their homes destroyed.

For some, the traumatic consequences may become manifest only later in life.

Guy Sa’ar, 18, of Jerusalem lost his appetite on the first day of the war. He resumed normal eating habits only a full week later.

But his younger brother, Yuval, took the war much more lightly.

“I was scared during the air raids, but I never really believed that a missile would hit us,” he said. “I knew it would not, because we live in Jerusalem.”

The capital was not hit by Scuds, apparently because Saddam Hussein feared his missiles might fall on Arab population centers. As a result, many Tel Aviv residents fled the coastal metropolis for shelter in the Holy City — and were mocked by Jerusalemites for doing so.

(The denizens of Tel Aviv recently got their sweet revenge, when scores of Jerusalemites, who found themselves without electricity during the cold nights of the record snowstorm, flocked to the relative balmy climes of Tel Aviv.)


Israelis in general make no effort to obliterate the memories of a year ago.

A new shopping mall in Haifa displays the remnant of a Scud missile that hit the site on the first night of the war. It is a sort of monument to Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to goad Israel into the fight.

The war created its own vocabulary. Many Israelis still identify themselves as residents of “Region A,” a recollection of the army’s division of the country into regions in order to aim specific civil defense instructions at different population areas.

It also created instant celebrities. One of them was Nahman Shai, the avuncular Israel Defense Force colonel whose soothing TV commentaries after each missile attack did much to set the nation’s mind at ease.

Shai’s moment of fame is long over. His face has disappeared from Israeli TV screens, much as that of U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf Jr., supreme commander of the Gulf war coalition, has vanished from American TV screens.

Surprisingly, there is no national debate over the lessons of the war, such as troubling reports that most of the masks given civilians were defective and whether Israel should have retaliated against Iraq regardless of the wishes of the United States.

Politicians still speak of such matters. But the general public is no longer interested. Its concerns are about unemployment, aliyah, the peace process and the unknown pitfalls that lie in its path.

For most Israelis, the Gulf war is yesterday’s news.

REMINDER: Because of Martin Luther King Day, the JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published on Monday, Jan. 20.

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