Blog by Dr. Shimon Samuels published in The Times of Israel
16 May 2021
The euphoric hyphen from vaccinations and dropping masks – a hint of normality – mutated into the shriek of sirens and war. The equation is the bipolar jump into the 48 hours from Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’azmaut (Independence Day), in reverse. My Army Reserve unit was the Senior Education Corps in the IDF Education Office. In peacetime, we would entertain troops with non-military lectures. In wartime – as in the 1978 Operation Litani incursion into Southern Lebanon, sparked by the PLO coastal road busses massacre – we would move from one battery to another during a break in the shelling. There, our role was to get the soldiers to vent as in the role of a psychologist or a rabbi, to raise morale.
In 1991, the first ever Soviet flight between Moscow and Tel Aviv, was awaiting approval for departure. The night before, the Jewish Agency was preparing the Russian/Ukrainian group’s emigrant passports. I asked a lady: “How do you feel about arriving in Israel when Saddam Hussein may attack? You will have to wear a mask against chemical toxins.”
She replied, “Toxin, I am from Chernobyl!” An elderly gentleman responded to the same question: “Poison gas? I survived Auschwitz!”
On the flight, we were all given a gas mask with instructions how to use it. On arrival in Lod airport, ours was the only plane landing. The next day, my wife – then Director of Hadassah Medical Relief Association – flew in on the only flight from Paris, with her French President.
War broke out. Donning my gas mask, I thought of my late dear mother, a siren warden during the London Blitz. My most treasured toy was the gas mask she had kept from those days.
In 1994, the Wiesenthal Centre had produced a list compiled by Kenneth Timmerman, on “The Poison Gas Connection”, of the companies – mostly German and Italian – that had supplied Saddam Hussein with the equipment to build Scud missiles and produce the chemical agents later weaponized against the Kurds.
Thirty-nine Scuds fell on Israel. For the first time in the State’s history we were unable to respond, as President Bush would not share United States “friendly codes”, in the belief that an Israeli counter-attack would lose his Arab supporters, thus breaking the coalition.
Our report became the major item for my unit sessions at military camps across the country, under sirens, shelters and Patriot counter-missiles, arguably a poor precursor of today’s Iron Dome.
Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza removed Jewish settlements and left infrastructure in place. This was a trial for an autonomous Gaza, rejected by the Palestinians, who vandalized vegetable and floral enterprises and greenhouses.
The 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” – in the last chapter since the current engagement – 50 days of Hamas” some 40,000 rockets, ended without resolution. Sirens and missiles have bombarded the towns bordering Gaza, forcing citizens to regularly run within seconds to the shelters.
I often wonder the fate of the Ukrainian woman and Russian man on the 1991 flight. On landing, they kissed the soil of Israel before donning their masks. What a remarkable people we are. Resilient in the face of adversity, in a world of grudging respect for our vaccination drive, but malicious when it comes to our self-defence. We are about to return to the shelter with a song of the Warsaw Ghetto on my mind: “Mir Seinen Du” – “We are here!”
Shimon Samuels is Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.