5 years after Scuds, Israelis recall Tel Avivians courage

Lying fully clothed in his empty bathtub at the start of the Gulf war — a pillow behind his head, a wet towel against the bottom of the door and a gas mask on his face — a Tel Aviv man began laughing uncontrollably as his sense of the absurd momentarily overcame naked fear.

Most Israelis made do with fear, undiluted by reflections on the human condition, as the country embarked five years ago on the eeriest of its many wars. It was a war in which Israel fired not a shot and suffered only one direct combat loss, but it blasted open the road to peace.

What was put to the test in Israel was not the wisdom of its leaders or the bravery of the pilots strapped into their cockpits on standby at air bases around the country, which was on nuclear alert, but the morale of little old ladies living at ground zero.

When the war overtook Israel on the early morning of Jan. 18, 1991, the most important people staffing the nation's bridge were two radio newsmen sitting inside a glassed-in studio in Jerusalem.

Zvi Lidar and Micha Friedman happened to be serving as co-anchors on the night shift of the merged Israel Broadcasting Authority-Army Radio broadcasts instituted a few days before.

When the siren sounded at 2 a.m., many people who were jarred out of their sleep tried to dismiss it as a false alarm. The allies attacked Iraq 24 hours earlier, but it was unthinkable that the Iraqis could or would fire missiles at Israel.

The persistent wail, however, could not be dismissed and the nation rose from its warm bed, switched on the radio and made its way to the room it had prepared for Armageddon. The act of slamming the door, quickly taping its edges and donning the gas mask was an acknowledgment of mortality, an admission that death was possibly imminent.

In the Jerusalem studio, Lidar put on his mask and continued to broadcast, his voice surprisingly audible. Friedman, who had believed that Saddam's threats were a bluff, had neglected to bring his mask to work. He too continued to broadcast, although, he would admit later, "I began to smell all kinds of strange odors."

The entire population was awake and listening as the pair passed on the first reports of a missile attack. It was not known how many missiles had been fired, where they had landed or, most importantly, what kind of warheads they carried.

Five million people hung on the broadcasters' every word and inflection. Their familiar voices and unruffled tone carried the unspoken assurance that whatever had happened, it was not the end of the world. For the coming month it would be the steady voices of broadcasters more than anything else that sustained morale.

Jerusalem's cafes in those weeks were filled with Tel Aviv faces looking slightly abashed at their self-imposed exile to this provincial mountain town presumably secure from Saddam's wrath; the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque had never looked so good.

Tel Aviv, in truth, had never looked better either. On the first day of the war, seemingly deserted by its population, the city that never stopped was silent at last beside the sea, listening to the waves instead of itself.

Tel Aviv, heaven forgive us, had become a holy city. It was not the timeless holiness of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, but the once-in-a-lifetime holiness of a sybaritic city confronting Doomsday, a holiness induced by recognition of rock-bottom truths scraped clean of vanities.

The city's residents had gathered behind shuttered windows, kindred groups gripping those precious truths about the value of life as they waited together for the night.

On the seafront promenade in the late afternoon, a drunk walked unevenly in the direction of Jaffa. There was no one else in sight on the normally teeming seafront other than a second man sitting on a bench looking out to sea. He was drunk too.

That night, a solitary car drove through Tel Aviv's deserted streets, fastidiously stopping at every red light. The driver, wearing a gas mask and bulky protective gear against chemical attack, was unrecognizable. When he stopped outside the city's emergency headquarters and attempted to enter, a gas-masked guard pointed an Uzi at his mid-section.

"Identify yourself or I shoot," he said.

Then-mayor Shlomo "Chich" Lahat took off his mask for a moment to show the guard his amused face. However, Lahat wasn't amused at all by the many Tel Avivians who skipped the war, or at least town.

"Is this the way Israel was established?" he asked during a brief visit to The Jerusalem Post during the war. "Where will they go next — to Ben-Gurion Airport to leave the country?"

A few indeed went abroad, but most people stayed put. In Ramat Gan, which suffered the worst Scud hits, a woman with two small pinschers on leashes walked briskly past the latest damage one morning, casting it hardly a glance.

She identified herself as Ruth David, 63. She had no intention of leaving town, she said. "I've got these two dogs and 40 birds at home."

Her apartment recalled her native Berlin, though she lived in a neighborhood of Iraqi Jews. Portraits of Beethoven and Goethe that she inherited from her parents hung over her piano. The shelves were filled with classical music tapes and books.

There was a racket of birdsong on the balcony emerging from cages holding finches, lovebirds and parrots. The birds made no sound when the Scuds hit, David said, but they were always silent at night. One of her dogs, however, had trembled in her lap.

A widowed teacher living alone, she gave no sign of being scared by the Scuds. Her family had escaped from Germany two years after Hitler's rise to power, and shortly after their arrival, Arabs fired at her and her father as they walked on the sand dunes.

During World War II, there had been talk of pulling back to a last-stand redoubt on the Carmel near Haifa when Rommel's Afrika Corps approached Egypt. Then there was the War of Independence and the frequent gunfire on the border moshav where she taught.

Her life experience told her that this strange war too would pass.

She had declined offers from family and friends elsewhere in the country to spend the war with them. There had been similar offers from Christian friends in Germany.

"I told them I can't go," she said. "I've never really found my place here, but this is where I belong."