Missile myths

It is amazing how many times one comes across references in the media to the supposed threat Iraq poses to Israel. We are constantly told of vulnerable Israelis “bracing for an attack,” gripped by fear and uncertainty. This imagery has increased markedly since the discovery that Iraq’s al-Samoud 2 missiles exceed the UN-designated range. The Times published a headline in late February about rockets that could reach “the heart of Israel.”

But even a shallow analysis of the balance of power between the two countries (which share no border) reveals the hollowness of such scare-mongering, which serves only to compound Arab and Muslim suspicions that the maintenance of Israel’s regional supremacy is a major aim of a possible war against Iraq.

The al-Samoud missiles can only reach Israel if deployed in western Iraq, which hasn’t happened, Israel’s military intelligence chief, General Aharon Zeevi, was reported as saying this month.

Even if they were, it is difficult to see how they could reach their target. True, 39 Iraqi Scuds hit Israel in 1991 (though causing only two deaths), but the military disparity between the two enemies has widened immensely since then. In 1991, Iraq had far more missiles and a greater capability to launch them. Israel’s defence against such missiles – the US Patriot system – proved to be patchy and ultimately inadequate.

However, Iraq was largely disarmed by the time UN inspectors left in 1998, it has been under the most stringent military embargo and economic sanctions in history, and it is destroying its al-Samoud missiles as requested by the UN. This time round, Israel is deploying its improved, state-of-the-art Arrow-2, Patriot-2 and Hawk missiles, a three-layered, successfully tested shield that is more than a match for the al-Samoud.

“Last time, the Patriots were only designed for use against aircraft, but these can be used against tactical ballistic missiles,” Lieutenant-Colonel Yariv Shnapp, the officer responsible for the Patriot and Hawk anti-missile systems in northern and central Israel, said in late February. With as little as one minute’s notice, the system would be able to successfully intercept an incoming projectile, he said. “One minute is enough to intercept this target.”

While Iraq’s 1991 strike against Israel was conventional, Shnapp said the new Patriot system could cope with an unmanned or remote-control plane bearing chemical or biological agents (not that Iraq has had much of an air force since its decimation 12 years ago).

In any case, it is highly unlikely that such defences would need to be utilised, given US pledges to destroy any firepower Iraq deploys in its western desert, and its ability to spot such deployments instantly via satellite.

There is also the threat of retaliation to consider. Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ignored outside diplomatic pressure and vowed to retaliate (disproportionately, judging by his record) against any attack, marking a departure from the inaction of 1991. It is beyond dispute that Israel’s military forces – armed with nuclear weapons and backed by the world’s only superpower – are far stronger than those of the Arab world, and in 1981 it showed its willingness and ability to attack Iraq unchallenged.

Iraq, on the other hand, has no nuclear capability according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and whether it still has chemical and biological weapons is the subject of intense global debate and UN inspections. The US has threatened nuclear strikes in the event of a non-conventional attack, and Israel has said Iraq would face “devastating” consequences (a strong hint at its own nuclear reprisals). No doubt the fear of such annihilation ensured the conventional nature of Iraq’s attack in 1991.

Some will say that because regime-change is the name of the US game this time round, an Iraqi regime facing its downfall might resort to desperate measures, but for the reasons explained above this would pose little if any threat to Israelis or US troops.

Anyhow, should non-conventional missiles somehow evade US detection and firepower, as well as Israel’s missile shield, its people have received the necessary immunisation and gas masks. Israel, unsurprisingly, has denied such precautions to the Palestinians, who with geographic proximity would thus be the victims of such an attack. This would not go down well on the Baath regime’s Arab nationalist score card on which it prides itself.

The Israelis, of course, are more aware of their own safety than the outside media seems to be. Israeli security experts and officials – including Zeevi, Shnapp and army spokeswoman General Ruth Yaron – say the likelihood of an Iraqi attack is “very low.”

“We have a lower level of threat to Israeli cities than in the 1991 Gulf War and much more powerful defence systems,” said Shnapp. “My forces are in the highest readiness point ever for any war scenario.”

In a little-reported poll carried out by the Seker Institute and broadcast by army radio on February 26, only 35% of Israelis said they feared an Iraqi attack. Perhaps the media should take note, and divert its attention away from a phantom menace to the very real hardships and dangers (present and future) faced by the Iraqi people.

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi is the chairman of Arab Media Watch, an organisation dedicated to objective British coverage of Arab issues.