It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since Iraq threatened to attack Israel. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and menaced Israel with weapons that included long-distance Scud missiles capable of being fitted with chemical warheads. Iraq also intended to invade Saudi Arabia and thus control most of the West’s supply of oil. A wide, US-led coalition was formed. The UN insisted that Saddam Hussein withdraw all his troops by January 15, 1991 or face military action. He refused. Here in Israel we began to stock up on basic foods items and bottled water.
But nothing happened; when we were short of something I’d just send one of the children to take it from the “war closet,” as we called it, and soon that was emptied out.
Weeks went by and, from mid-December, preparations for war began in earnest. We all had our gas masks at the ready, and put them on a shelf even the smallest could reach. Nechama, my elder daughter, was getting a bit panicky, “Why aren’t you getting the safe room ready? Sarit’s parents have; so have Michal’s.” Her Abba was in reserve duty from mid-December, so her Ima was getting all the flak.
In early January lines at the supermarket grew longer. We bought all the basics, for the second time: oil, sugar, flour, canned goods, bottled water. As usual, Nechama and Gila told me each day what they’d learnt in school, but this time it was what to do in case of attack, including one with chemical weapons: “First you put on your gas mask, then you tighten the straps, then you seal up the door, and lie on the floor, not near the window.” We bought bicarbonate of soda for soaking pads to place over our mouths in case of non-conventional warhead attack; bleach to sprinkle over rags covering the gap between door and floor and heavy gauge plastic and adhesive tape. We formed an assembly line with Nechama in charge: “Gila, you measure the bottom of the window and cut the tape, I’ll fit it, Ima will stand on the ladder and fit the top and sides.”
The January 15 deadline neared and, like all of Am Yisrael, we waited. We felt a bit like Noach preparing the teivah before the Flood as we made sure all essential supplies – the fire extinguisher, scissors, bucket, Scotch tape, cleansing tissues, radio and batteries, torch – were in the sealed room. By January 14, the room was ready.
The ultimatum expired at 7:00 Israel time. I went to work as usual at Shaare Zedek hospital, and in the afternoon updated our new American neighbors – 20-somethings, with a six-month-old baby – on the situation. We were in a kind of limbo; the US government issued a statement, but that was all.
During the night of January16-17, at 3:30, the phone rang.
“You weren’t asleep?” It was Avigayil, our Israeli aunt.
“The war’s started. The Americans are bombing Baghdad. Wake the girls. They say to put on your gas masks. Switch on the radio.”
I woke Nechama and Gila. Our neighbor, Seth knocked at the door. They had also had a phone call. We all put our gas masks on, went into the sealed room, and waited for more instructions from the army spokesman on the radio.
We eventually came out; Israel had not been attacked. The television showed Baghdad ablaze, we saw the damage and destruction rained down on the city. Radio instructions were for everyone to stay in their houses except for essential workers, so I stayed home, glued to the radio all day with Nechama and Gila.
The day passed in a haze of euphoria. We all felt that this was the war Israel wasn’t fighting; perhaps it would be over in a few days if the US kept up the pressure of the first few hours of bombing.
The euphoria vanished when the first sirens went off in the middle of the night. Trembling from head to foot, I leaped into action. I unlocked the front door for emergency services to enter after a missile attack. Woke neighbors. Rushed home, girls in room putting on masks, sealed up door. We lay on the floor, tensely. Eye contact with daughters almost impossible, reassuring words almost inaudible. We waited, listening to Army Radio. There were two rocket attacks that first night.
Friday, January 17, we were getting ready for Shabbat. My husband called in the morning with messages to pass on to two other “army wives.” We stayed in the house, as instructions from Civil Defense were to go out only within a distance of five minutes, and for essential business only, for example, to buy challah.
My husband arrived home 20 minutes before Shabbat, without his beard (so that the gas mask would fit better). Nechama and Gila had never seen their father beardless, and kept looking at this stranger! We had a joint seudah with our neighbors, and were singing zemirot when the siren sounded: the first of three that night. We followed the usual drill each time, and by morning were drained of energy – physical and emotional.
My husband and Seth went off to shul. It was a beautiful winter’s day, but eerily quiet.
There were no children playing outside, and families weren’t visiting friends and relatives in the neighborhood. During the night, there was another missile attack. Tel Aviv/Ramat Gan was being targeted every time. The pictures showed buildings crumbling but, miraculously, hardly any wounded, and even those were light injuries. Hospitals were prepared for all eventualities.
Sunday morning, my husband returned to the Army. His group knew that they might receive an emergency call-up for an unlimited period. This was the war when the oldies were called up to protect the Home Front while youngsters in fighting brigades were not called up. Our hospital department decided to try to function as usual, even though the hospital was on a war footing. I made up my mind to go to work that afternoon in our walk-in cancer-screening clinic. No one came, but it was good for me to be there. The hospital was short of cleaning workers, so I cleaned up in the department, and sat with my boss to discuss work priorities.
It was quite scary coming home. I left at 6:30 but buses weren’t running on schedule. It was very dark, as few streetlights were lit. I made my way to the bus stop in heavy rain and waited with some others. Although walking home would take only 25 minutes, I was afraid of being in an open area in case of a missile attack. A cab came and I took it to the entrance of Bayit Vegan.
Monday – work! Patients were telephoned. They were pleased that we were working and that we made an effort to call them. Nechama and Gila were helping our next-door neighbors, playing with Nossi, and keeping Tanya company.
The strange war went on. My husband returned from army service and went back to work immediately. I worked extra hours; the children got schoolwork to do at home, and then went back to school. Mothers of infants and kindergarten-age children, whose gas masks had to be taken everywhere with them, were in the most difficult position.
I’ve been trying to remember how we lived through those weeks. We were constantly tired, sometimes woken up several times in one night. Even without sirens, our sleep patterns were disrupted and we woke every 3-4 hours. So we slept whenever we could, especially in the late afternoon. We also ate whenever we could, as we didn’t know when the next meal would be. I had large pots of soup at the ready, baked potatoes for snacks in the microwave, bread, cheese, fruit, nuts, etc. We also ate plenty of junk food. We had thermoses always filled with hot water, and from 6:00 onwards the kettle was generally on the stove for hot water bottles. Fear makes you cold, and a hot water bottle is a great comforter.
During the evening or at night, we didn’t want to be away from the house, so for six weeks we were home every evening. Weddings during the war took place early in the afternoon, and guests made special efforts to be there. Photograph albums and videos of many couples married in January and February 1991 show the “gas mask” dance, which became a Gulf War wedding ritual. Apart from smachot, social life came to a complete halt – we hardly saw anyone out of our own neighborhood. Amazingly, the 38 Scud missiles aimed at Israeli civilians in this Persian Gulf War had not resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths and injuries.
The war lasted until February 28, Shushan Purim! Everyone marveled at the significance of the Gulf War ending on Purim. We went off to hear the Megillah with light hearts, and without our gas masks. We listened to how the Jews had been saved from a wicked tyrant in Persia thousands of years ago, and felt immense gratitude to Hashem for saving His people from the modern-day tyrant in Iraq.