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Scuds in Lebanon: Israel’s Déjà Vu, Again and Again

Sitting on my desk is a mangled chunk of steel, a large piece of shrapnel from a Scud missile that hit a Tel Aviv community center in 1991. It serves to remind me of the terror of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein fired 39 long-range Scuds at the Tel Aviv and Haifa regions over a six-week period.

Earlier this month, Arab, American, and Israeli sources all confirmed that Syria transferred Scud missiles to Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Immediately, several commentators and analysts minimized the Scuds’ dangers. From Time:

Scuds can be easily tracked and destroyed by the Israeli air force before launching.

The Los Angeles Times editorialized:

[The] large 1950s-era missiles are inaccurate, and Israel has the capacity to intercept them.

The Kuwaiti paper Al-Rai reported:

Hizbullah sources confirmed Thursday that the terror group received a shipment of Scud missiles from Syria. … The missiles were claimed to be old and unusable.

American officials hemmed and hawed: maybe the Syrians just “intended” to provide them … perhaps the missiles weren’t “delivered in full” yet.

Déjà vu

The media apparently has long-term memory loss and is incapable of remembering the 1991 Gulf War Scuds crashing down on Israel. But what excuse is there to forget the barrages of Hamas’ Kassam and Katyusha rockets that set off the 2009 Gaza conflagration?

Over a period of eight years, analysts and reporters described the thousands of Kassam rockets fired at Israeli civilians as primitive, inaccurate, homemade, and relatively harmless. They minimized the threats to Israeli citizens, as Jewish children in their playgrounds scurried to bomb shelters or families cowered in “safe rooms” while Kassams — and later, the bigger Katyushas — crashed into their towns.

The “primitive” missiles killed and wounded Israelis.

When Israel’s army finally responded, Israel was condemned with unprecedented opprobrium by governments, the media, the UN, J Street Jews, the self-righteous left, and the bigoted.

A recommendation to Israel: Assume the Scuds are in place and in the hands of a terrorist organization. Take the threat seriously.

Déjà vu, again

Every adult Israeli remembers lugging gas masks everywhere during the 1991 Gulf War. Many sat in long lines of cars leaving Israel’s coastal towns in the late afternoon to ferry families to the relatively safer Jerusalem or Eilat areas. Hearing an ambulance siren today still triggers for many Israelis the memory of the dreaded air raid sirens, scurrying to shelters, and squeezing their smallest children into sealed plastic coops with purified air.

The Scud missiles were supposed to be inaccurate, but at least six hit residential areas in Israel, and their one ton explosive warheads left swaths of devastation. Thousands of homes and businesses were damaged. The lethality of the missile was seen in one case in Saudi Arabia, where a Scud killed 28 U.S. soldiers in Dhahran and wounded more than 100. Moreover, if the Hizbullah Scuds are the “D model” in Syria’s arsenal, then their accuracy is supposed to be pretty good — within 50 meters of the target.

But Scuds do not have to be accurate to be effective. They just need to explode.

They are terror weapons (may one use the word “terror” today?), intended to panic Israel’s civilian population and shut down Israel’s economy. And for several years now, American intelligence has been warning that “a portion” of the hundreds of Syria’s Scuds “may have chemical warheads.”

As Iran’s proxy on the Mediterranean, Hizbullah works closely with Syria and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Hizbullah caught the Israeli navy off-guard during the 2006 war, shooting a sophisticated Iranian-produced missile at an Israeli missile boat and killing four IDF sailors. Israeli defenders were also caught by surprise when Hizbullah unmanned aerial vehicles flew over northern Galilee. In any future combat, the Israeli air force may find itself flying through a thicket of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles provided to Hizbullah by Iran, or covering Lebanon’s airspace while based within Syria’s adjacent territory.

Since the Gulf War, Israel developed the Arrow anti-missile system to intercept weapons such as the Scud or Iran’s more advanced Shehab missile, but a massive barrage of missiles could possibly overwhelm Israel’s defenses. The new Israeli “Iron Dome” system is supposed to block Katyusha missiles such as the ones Hamas and Hizbullah rained down on Israel, but it’s not battle-tested. The United States has provided a high-powered X-band radar station to provide early warning of long-range missile launches.

But who wants to rely on such defensive systems to shoot down missiles falling on your head? Israel must have the ability to preempt.

Lebanon’s army commander, Jean Kahwaji, argued this week that it was impossible that Scuds could have been introduced into the country:

Scud rockets are not like Katyushas that are carried on the shoulder and transferred from one area to another. The rockets are 30 meters long, are carried on large vehicles, and need 40 minutes to prepare for launch.

Considering that Hizbullah has been incorporated into the Lebanese army (some claim the army was integrated into Hizbullah), no one should be surprised by his declaration of innocence. But the Scud missile is 11-12 meters long, not 30 as Kahwaji states. Moreover, Hizbullah smuggled 16-meter-long Zelzal missiles and their launchers into Lebanon in 2006.

In the first days of the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying 54 of Hizbullah’s mid-range Zelzal missile launchers (approximately half the range and half the warhead of the Scuds). Many of the Zelzals were deployed in civilian neighborhoods.

But the Israeli army and air force could not stop the constant bombardment of other missiles and rockets. Almost 3,800 rockets were launched against Israel, with some 900 hitting Israeli towns, killing 42 civilians and wounding more than 4,200. Today, Hizbullah is reported to possess 40,000 rockets, four times the number it held in 2006. “We are at a point now,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned this week, “where Hizbullah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”

Presumably, Hizbullah will hide the Scud launchers better than it concealed the Zelzal launchers.

A recommendation to Israel: Be prepared. Consider preemption. Take the threat seriously.

Déjà vu, once more

Prior to the 1991 war, the Americans promised Israel that in the event of a Scud attack, U.S. aircraft would concentrate on knocking out the Scuds within the first 48 hours. However, as explained by Moshe Arens, who served as Israel’s defense minister at the time:

The problem of hitting mobile launchers was far more difficult than the U.S. had envisioned. Although there was intensive aerial activity directed at hitting the Scud launchers, not a single Scud launcher was hit or immobilized during the five weeks of the Gulf War.

Then the Americans sent over the Patriots. The Patriot was probably the most advanced anti-aircraft missile around at the time, and was advertised as also having anti-missile capability. As it turned out, the Patriot missiles in Israel did not succeed in intercepting a single Scud missile.

Today, senior American officials are not promising to destroy Hizbullah Scuds; they are denying that they’re in Lebanon.

After all, such a deployment would be a serious violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which prohibits the “supply of weapons to any entity in Lebanon without the consent of the Government of Lebanon.” (This raises the question of whether Lebanon’s government, cowering before a resurgent Syria, agreed to the Scud deployment. If so, that makes Lebanon, its military, and infrastructure complicit and fair game in the event of another war.)

But as far as Syria is concerned, the U.S. appears to be rewarding the Assad regime despite the transfer of the Scuds. Washington still intends to send a U.S. ambassador to Damascus as part of the commitment to “engage” Syria.

Denial of the deployment of missiles is an old American tactic in the Middle East. After negotiating a cease-fire along the Suez Canal between Israel and Egypt in 1970, American officials rejected Israeli claims that Egypt was moving anti-aircraft missile batteries to the Canal. This was in violation of the agreement that forbade either side from “changing the military status quo within zones extending 50 kilometers to the east and west of the cease-fire line.” Within weeks, however, Egypt had deployed more than 100 batteries along the Canal, anti-aircraft weaponry that would provide cover for the Egyptian attack on Israeli lines during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Israel was furious about the Egyptian violation. Henry Kissinger reported (The White House Years, Volume 1, page 587) that Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir sent a demarche via Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin with evidence of Egypt’s violations and deployment of missile batteries. Rabin was brought into President Nixon to show him the evidence and to “complain bitterly about the reluctance of our intelligence community to accept Israeli evidence.”

Kissinger continued with words that echo true 40 years later whether applied to the Iranian, Syrian, or Palestinian front:

“There was some merit,” Kissinger wrote, “in Rabin’s complaint of the reluctance of the U.S. intelligence community to find violations. As I explained to the president:

‘Israel, with her survival at stake, cannot afford to take chances. … The nature of the Israelis’ situation is bound to influence their interpretation of ambiguous events. We, on the other hand, have an incentive to minimize such evidence, since the consequences of finding violations are so unpleasant. Violations force us to choose between doing something about them and thus risk the blowup of our initiative; or doing nothing and thus renege on our promises to Israel, posing the threat of her taking military action. Accordingly, we tend to lean over backwards to avoid the conclusion that the Arabs are violating the ceasefire unless the evidence is unambiguous.’”

A recommendation to Israel: Don’t trust U.S. assurances. Take the threat seriously.

Déjà vu, once again

Despite the failure to destroy Iraq’s Scuds in 1991, “the United States was very eager that Israel not intervene in any way.” Moshe Arens recently related. He continued:

So, despite the previous U.S. assurance that Israel would be free to take action if the missile threat could not be eliminated within 48 hours, after 72 hours President Bush called Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Jim Baker called me, insisting that we not take any action, that we not in any way “spoil” the operation that was underway.

“Keeping Israel out of the conflict [was] a central strategic concern of our diplomacy,” says Secretary of State James Baker, according to a 1999 study on U.S.-Israel relations during the Gulf War.  The study continued:

The prevailing conventional wisdom among American policymakers was that any direct Israeli action against Iraq or indirect participation with U.S.-led forces would likely fray the multinational coalition. If Israel took military action against Iraq, Arab members of the coalition … would withdraw. This would have both strategic political and military implications for the United States, and also hinder Washington’s operational capabilities in the Gulf.

Compare American policy under Baker 20 years ago with the present, with the American reaction to the looming threats to Israel of a nuclear Iran and Scuds in Lebanon. The U.S. administration is again warning Israel — perhaps even threatening — against undermining their fantasy policy world. Like James Baker, they fear that Israeli actions such as building in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, attacking Hizbullah Scuds, or taking action against Iran’s nuclear threat will have strategic political implications for the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on April 15:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed a role in the global geostrategic environment that carries great weight. … Comprehensive peace is critical, not just to Israel and not just to the Palestinians and not just to the United States, but to the future of this world we share.

President Obama expressed a similar theme at the Nuclear Security Summit on April 14:

I think that the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the Arab states remains as critical as ever. … It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.

Years ago, a New York senator complained about a president’s “even-handed” policy in the Middle East. “Even-handedness,” he complained, “means the palm of the hand to the Arabs and the back of the hand to the Israelis.”

It appears that for now the U.S. administration recognizes that it went too far with the back of its hand and has publicly rolled back some of the pressure on Israel. Speakers from the president on down have recently praised U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation. But the harm has been done. Confidence in the relationship has been shaken, and the Arabs and Iranians probably believe that United States support for Israel has lessened.

Here’s a recommendation to Israel. Déjà vu is not only hindsight. Use it for 20-20 foresight. Take all threats seriously.