Reminiscences on the Gulf War 1991

The period was the beginning of 1991. Iraq had several months earlier invaded Kuwait and the United States and others sent troops to the Middle East to drive out Iraq from Kuwait and the war was called the Gulf War. Even though Israel was also situated in the Middle East, this war should not have affected Israel but because of the proximity of Iraq with Israel, it in fact did so.

Iraq had developed biological and chemical weapons and had the capacity to send them as far as Israel. In the weeks before this war began, Israel began to prepare for an attack by biological and chemical weapons.

The inhabitants in Israel were told to prepare and seal off a room in which to go if there would be a warning of such an attack. Instructions were given on how to seal around the windows with masking tape, and also to put strips of sticky paper over the windows and cover them with plastic sheeting in order to protect the people in the room should the glass in the widows shatter.

As far as doors were concerned, there were instructions to keep a supply of this masking tape in the “sealed-off” room to put around the edges of the door. To close off the space between the bottom of the door and the floor, one was told to put a wet towel there.

One was also instructed to have a radio playing all the time, since instructions when to enter the “sealed-off” room would be given over the radio. The country was divided into a number of areas since it might not always be necessary to send the entire country into the “sealed-off” rooms. One of these areas comprised the area of Judea and Samaria and since it mainly consisted of Arabs, it was thought to be unlikely that Iraq would send their rockets into this area.

The population were also issued with gas masks. As with all other places in Israel, there was a distribution of these gas masks in Kiryat Arba. There was also a smaller size gas mask for children or people with small heads. For babies there was a special “mamad” – a small closed in chamber. The gas masks came in sealed boxes and in addition to the masks there was a syringe containing an antidote to poison gas. People were told not to open the boxes until instructed to do so.

Since the gas masks had to fit tightly over the head, having a beard would prevent such a tight fit and bearded people were instructed to shave off their beards.

I had a beard, but I decided to wait before shaving it off. Could we be 100 per cent sure whether there would be a war and even if there was a war how do we know that the Iraqis would send rockets into Israel?

The room my family decided to make as the “sealed-off” room was the bedroom of my wife and myself. Naturally at that period there was a big rush to buy the brown masking tape to seal the around the windows and the doors. The suppliers could not keep pace with the demand. I was only able to buy transparent “sellotape” and I thus used that. I then saw someone who was an expert in that field and he told me that the transparent material was not as good as the brown. However, soon after, the brown once again became available in the shops and I purchased this and resealed the windows with it.

Eventually in mid-January the war did start. We left the radio on at night, the gas marks ready to wear, a supply of the brown masking tape in the bedroom to seal off the door, a towel which could be quickly wetted and a scissors by my bed to quickly cut off my beard should there in fact be the alarm of an attack from Iraq.

The first attack came during the night. The members of the family came into the bedroom. We sealed around the door, put a wet towel at the bottom of the door. I quickly cut off my beard and put on my gas mask. Even after the first rocket had fallen, people were told to remain in the sealed room, until it was checked to see if there were any biological or chemical poisons in it. None were found in it and we were then given the all clear to leave the sealed room.

Obviously in the time available I had only cut off my beard in a rough and ready manner. I therefore on the following day took out my electric shaver which I had not used for many many years and gave myself a smooth shave. I, however, left my moustache. One of my children photographed me beardless, and two photographs are shown of me at the end of this article. Being beardless, people did not recognise me and only when they heard me speak did they know who it was!

Until this war, my wife and children had never seen me without a beard. Furthermore, they have likewise never seen me since the war without a beard.

According to the halachah (Jewish law), a regular shaliach tzibur (reader at a religious service) should, (at least preferably), have a beard. I was a regular shaliach tzibur at the time, and after shaving of my beard, I would, half-jokingly, say that I could no longer continue being a shaliach tzibur!

During the following month and a half, a total of 39 rockets were fired at Israel and we thus made regular visits to the the “sealed room”. As stated above, the country was divided into a number of areas and one would be told which area could leave the sealed room. Since the area where Kiryat Arba is situated has a large majority of Arabs, only on one occasion was this area told to remain in the sealed room. This rather surprised us and it seems that the tail of a rocket fell near Maon, a settlement in the Hebron Hills.

What did we do for Shabbat during this war? Without question it was a case of pikuach nefesh, but what one could prepare before Shabbat must be done before Shabbat. The light and the radio were left on in the sealed room. A towel was wetted before Shabbat and was kept in a plastic bag to prevent it drying out. Cutting the brown masking tape and sticking it on the edges of the door had to be done Shabbat. There were indeed cases when we had to go into the sealed room on Shabbat.

On one Friday night towards the beginning of this war, after the evening service the gabbai of the Shul (which was situated in a rented room in the local matnas (Community Centre)), who had the only key of the main door to the building, locked up the building not realising that there were still children in it. He then went to his apartment which was at the other side of Kiryat Arba. A few minutes later, someone came to my apartment, which was adjacent to the matnas building, to say that some children were locked in the building. I hoped that there would be no air-raid warning in the immediate future and there would thus be time to go to the gabbai’s apartment and get the key. I was too optimistic! Almost immediately there was an air-raid warning. It was necessary to get the children out immediately and because it was a case of pikuach nefesh, someone kicked in the window. We then put a garment over any broken glass remaining at the bottom of the window frame and pulled the children out through this opening. As soon as possible we told the manager of the mantas what had happened, so that he would not think that there had been a break in on that Shabbat.

The place where I then worked was the local pedagogic centre and it was then situated in an air raid shelter. One of the rooms in this shelter was made into the sealed room by having the air-vents closed off.

At the time of the war, my mother who was then in her 80s, lived alone in Petach Tiqva. At the beginning of the war, she came to Kiryat Arba and whilst she was in Kiryat Arba, a rocket fell near her apartment and did some very minor damage. The Israeli authorities sent someone to do the repair.

Most of the rockets were aimed at the coastal strip, namely the Tel Aviv area. It was interesting to note that people who were always frightened to leave the “secure” coastal strip and come to the “dangerous” Judea and Samaria area, suddenly had different ideas during this war!

Whenever I left my apartment during this war, I would go with my gas mask with the strap of its box slung over my shoulder. The only exception was when I went to my shul which was adjacent to my apartment and I would thus have time to run there in the case of an air raid.

Only on one occasion during this war did I travel out of Kiryat Arba and this was to Jerusalem. My son’s Barmitzvah was on the Shabbat before Purim and I had to buy clothes and do other things which were mainly connected with the Barmitzvah. Naturally I took my gas mask with me. I had about half a dozen things to do in Jerusalem and all of them without exception went without any hitches, which is rather an unusual occurrence! Amongst these things was collecting my bespoke suit which fitted perfectly thus not requiring any further alterations. I also went to the Bet Yisrael section of Mea Shearim to purchase a very rare book, “Tikun Yissachar” which had just been photocopies and brought out.

A lot of family members came from out of town for the Shabbat of the Barmitzvah and we were worried whether there would be air raids that Shabbat. Since the sealed room in our apartment would have been insufficient for all the guests, we prepared an additional sealed room.

Saddam Hussein was very co-operative and there were no air raids during the whole of Shabbat. Only after Shabbat there was the signal to go into the sealed rooms and with all the guests in the house it was a bit chaotic.

The war ended on the day before Purim.

There were obviously complaints about not making an allowance for people with beards when giving out the gas masks. When after the war, the government decided to change everyone’s gas masks, those people who grew beards for religious reasons, could sign a declaration to this effect, and receive a different sort of gas mask which worked with a battery. I signed such a declaration and when the family’s gas marks were changed, I received the one for bearded men. There were complaints by non-observant man that why should it depend only on religious observance. I myself also had concerns. The gas mask for bearded men worked on a battery. Would it therefore not be better to shave of one’s beard should there again be such a war, and use the normal type of gas mark rather than have to turn on a battery one on Shabbat.

At a later date, the government again decided to call in the gas masks. It was announced in Kiryat Arba that in the week before Pesach, someone would come around the apartments to collect them. But no-one turned up. On erev Pesach, it was announced over the local “beeper system” that people should bring them to a collection centre which was at the other side of Kiryat Arba. Why particularly choose erev Pesach? Do people have spare time on that very busy day of the year?! Another occasion that they made this “beeper” announcement was at about 18.00 hours on the fast of Tammuz and that the collection centre would close at 20.30 which was the time the fast would end. Who wants to make a long journey towards the end of a long fast on a very hot day?! Since then there have been no collections and my family’s gas masks are still waiting to be collected.

P.S. As soon as it was possible, I regrew my beard!!

to view