The Ghost of Israel's Sealed Rooms

William Northrop - New Dimensions - June, 1992 [Print Edition]

The man who helped Israel to be prepared for the Gulf War is languishing in a U.S. maximum security prison. Why?

It was not long after he ordered his "Republican Guard" to ravish Kuwait that Saddam Hussein turned his attention to Israel, threatening to destroy the tiny Jewish State with poison gas. But due to the actions of one man, Israeli citizens were prepared for such an occurrence. Today Israelis call this individual "the ghost of the sealed rooms," for it was largely due to his efforts and sacrifice that they were prepared when Saddam launched "El-Abed," the Iraqi missile, at Israel in January of 1991.

It had long been a standard practice in Israel to include a bomb shelter in each new building. But in 1985, the Israelis suddenly changed their approach to civilian defense. Bomb shelters were still built, but the emphasis was shifted to a new concept - the "sealed room." Every building, house, and apartment would contain a room that would be sealed with plastic and therefore capable of protecting its occupants from poison gas.

Five years later when the Iraqi Scuds rained down on Tel Aviv, the poignant and bizarre specter of thousands of men, women and children donning gas masks and retreating to their "sealed rooms" became one of the most enduring images of the Gulf war.

The mass protection provided by the nation's "sealed rooms" intrigued outside observers previously unaware of Israel's comprehensive preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Dr. Peter Hutchinson, the noted British expert on mass crisis intervention, stated to The Jerusalem Post that "there is nowhere else on earth as prepared as Israel" for a chemical attack against her population. The fact that Saddam Hussein proved unable or unwilling to use his poison gas on the Israelis is beside the point. The Gulf war saw almost fifty ballistic missiles fall on the Jewish State. Had they carried the promised chemical warheads, Israel would have been ready.

How, then, did Israel come to be prepared, while all of the other Middle East nations, and even some of the coalition armies arrayed against the Iraqis, were not? Herein lies our "ghost story." Like many stories dealing with Israeli security, it is one of Byzantine intrigues, admirable farsightedness, and great sacrifice. It is the story of how the Israelis, haunted by the memory of their slaughtered millions, burned political bridges, broke all the rules, and sacrificed the lives of one Jewish family in order to prevent a potential second Holocaust. The Israelis suffered consequences for their actions; of that there can be no doubt. But they were prepared when Saddam's missiles flew.

Still, the fate of the man who warned them of Saddam's chemical weapons capability weighs heavily on Israelis, who feel he stood between them and their worse nightmare. "Every day," wrote one Israeli journalist, "we fight the Arabs and win. But every night, we fight the Nazis and lose."

The defense of Israel's civilian population is charged to a special unit within the Israel Defense Forces known as Haga. It is to this unit that the older men and those generally unfit for combat duty are sent. In an army whose components are mostly combat units, Haga has been the butt of some pretty mean jokes over the years. The Gulf war proved, however, to be their war, for it was the soldiers of the Haga units who found themselves on the "front lines," while the combat units cooled their heels on the borders or remained at home, unmobilized.

It was Haga that introduced the "sealed room" doctrine in 1985 and placed the orders for gas mask design and production. The now-famous Protective Infant Carrier or "cocoon" was designed and produced during this period, as were smaller, blower-driven gas masks for older children. When the British refused to sell Israel a blower-driven gas hood for younger children, Haga ordered the design copied and rushed into production.

Millions of doses of the nerve gas antidote, Atropine, in automatic injectors were also ordered, as well as decontamination powder, extra gas mask filters, blower batteries, and the like. Movies, lectures and pamphlets were prepared to educate the population to use the protective equipment and prepare their sealed rooms. Finally, Haga drew up a plan to rapidly distribute protective kits to every man, woman and child - Jewish and Arab - inside the Israeli borders, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, should the need arise.

Haga had a little more than five years to prepare, but the day finally arrived in the fall of 1990 when the population of Israel was ordered to prepare their sealed rooms and take out their protective equipment. Kuwait had been invaded, and "the Butcher of Baghdad" was openly threatening Israel.

At a little past two in the morning, on Friday, January 18, 1991, the time for preparations ended, and Haga's foresight was tested. A salvo of eight Iraqi Scuds landed in Israel's population centers, but, prepared for the worst, the Israelis withstood the tense hours of high explosives and fear. Throughout the Gulf War, with repeated Scud attacks on the Jewish State, Israelis found refuge within their sealed rooms from the promised Iraqi gas attacks.

Still the question remains: How did the Israelis know the danger in 1985, with time enough to prepare? How could they have known back then, when the Iran-Iraq War was in a lull, before any missiles had been launched at any cities, before the Iranian troops had been gassed in the Fao Peninsula, and even before the Kurdish villages had perished in the lethal vapors? It was, of course, the work of Israeli intelligence, the Jewish State's first line of defense.

The gathering, analysis and dissemination of the critical information rank this coup high among the legendary successes of Israel's Secret Services. There was, however, the cumbersome, untidy problem of the Jewish family this intelligence coup destroyed. That is the story of the convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Jay Pollard.

Then a bright young, young U.S. Naval intelligence officer, Pollard betrayed the trust of the U.S. Government, destroyed his family, and sacrificed his freedom in order to pass on certain intelligence information to the Israelis. What sort of information? Details of: Iraqi and Syrian gas, chemical and biological warfare capabilities; Soviet arms shipments to Arab countries; Pakistan's efforts to build an atom bomb; U.S. Intelligence assessments of PLO-planned activities; Libyan air defenses, and more.

Why such information, some of vital to Israel's very survival, was being officially withheld from Israel by the U.S. - despite the "U.S.-Israel Exchange of Intelligence Agreement" the two nations had signed just two years earlier - remains a mystery. To Pollard, it was more than a mystery; it was an outrage.

(When Pollard asked his superiors in the U.S. Defense Department why information about the poison gas capabilities of Israel's sworn enemies was being withheld from Israel, he was reportedly told: "Jews are too sensitive about gas.") Pollard responded by breaking the rules - big time.

For his sins, Jonathan Jay Pollard is currently and perhaps permanently sealed in a different kind of room - three stories underground, at the federal maximum security prison in Marion, Illinois. It is place where they lock you in a room and throw away the [key]. He may remain there, in solitary confinement, for the rest of his life - even though, as a result of the Gulf War, many now believe he was astride the moral high ground.

And while the U.S. Government remains angry and defensive, or at the very least perplexed, over the Pollard affair, Israelis hold him in a special place in their hearts. "You know how we feel," said one Tel Aviv attorney. "Every time we put the baby into her (gas) crib, every time my son pulled on his gas hood, I thought of Pollard. Every time my family went into our sealed room, Jonathan Pollard went with us."

William Northrop is the Jerusalem bureau chief of New Dimensions Magazine - The Psychology Behind the News.

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