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Patriot Battery in Israel Intercepts Iraqi Missile

By Jackson Diehl and William Claiborne
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 24, 1991; Page A01

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TEL AVIV, Jan. 23—An Iraqi missile was intercepted in northern Israel by a U.S.-supplied Patriot battery tonight as the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reaffirmed its decision to postpone any military action against Iraq.

The successful intercept marked the first time that U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles deployed here last Saturday prevented an incoming Iraqi warhead from exploding in Israel. Tuesday night, the army said, a Patriot struck but failed to disable an Iraqi Scud missile that landed in greater Tel Aviv, causing three deaths and dozens of injuries.

After Shamir met with senior cabinet ministers and military leaders in Tel Aviv this morning, government sources said Israel continues to feel that the political benefits of staying out of the Persian Gulf War outweigh any military result that might be achieved if its air force joined in attacks on missile targets in western Iraq. The United States and other Western governments have strongly praised Israel's policy, and polls have shown overwhelming support here for the government.

Associates of Shamir said he has been concerned for some time about the prospect that the U.S.-led military coalition would turn after the Persian Gulf War to resolving the Palestinian issue, bringing unprecedented pressure to bear on his right-wing government to give up the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Scud missile strikes may have changed the equation, senior government officials say. Now, Shamir calculates that by taking advantage of the outpouring of international sympathy for Israel and by forging close wartime ties with the Bush administration, he may be able to ensure that his own "nightmare scenario" in the crisis never comes to pass.

Government officials reiterated that Israel plans to retaliate against Iraq eventually. But they said that action could be delayed and could take some form other than an air assault, which would require Israeli planes to fly over hostile Jordan and risk widening the war. Shamir has promised to coordinate any Israeli action with the United States.

"There's a growing feeling that Israel has to respond to this. We can't stay here like sitting ducks," said Avi Pazner, a senior adviser to Shamir. However, citing the presence of hundreds of U.S. warplanes over Iraq, he added: "We have to respond with smarts to get the result we want. We want these missiles to stop. If others won't make them stop, we will."

Pazner said Shamir received another phone call from President Bush about 7 this morning, and later met with Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who has been in Israel since Saturday to facilitate consultations between Jerusalem and Washington.

Army spokesman Col. Raanan Gissin said tonight that the latest Iraqi Scud to be fired at Israel -- the fourth attack in the last seven nights -- was stopped by "a volley" of Patriot missiles fired by a mixed Israeli-American crew. He said the Scud's warhead was destroyed in the air and debris landed in a mixed rural-suburban area along the northern coast. Gissin said no casualties or property damage had been reported, and only one Scud had been detected.

A senior Israeli military official said earlier today that the Iraqi Scud that landed in Tel Aviv Tuesday night also had been hit by a Patriot. Brig. Gen. Uri Ram, commander of Israel's air defenses, told reporters it was not known why the Scud still caused extensive damage after being hit. The missile slammed into a residential neighborhood, wrecking a three-story building and heavily damaging others.

"For reasons that we still don't know, the target wasn't destroyed and the warhead came down," Ram said during a tour of one of the joint U.S.-Israeli Patriot batteries in the Tel Aviv area. He said it was possible the Patriot "just knocked the Scud around a bit but did not destroy it."

In Washington, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that that Patriot missile had been fired by an Israeli crew because the U.S. crew, which was closer, was having problems with its generator.

A senior Israeli source said the military command is increasingly concerned about the course of the war, because U.S. forces are faring worse than the Israelis expected.

In Israel's view, "Iraq is fighting in a way that indicates they are pursuing their own strategy with some success," the official said. He added, "This isn't what we expected. And it is a very difficult situation for us because we are sitting on the sidelines."

Israeli military officials say they believe Iraqi missile attacks on the country could continue for some time, despite the intensive allied efforts to find and destroy Scud launchers. They also say it is still possible Iraq will launch a chemical weapons attack on Israel, although all the warheads hitting here so far have contained conventional high explosives.

Asked if Israel was considering a ground operation in western Iraq to root out mobile missile launchers, Pazner said, "We are keeping all our options open. We have said we will respond in our way and at a time of our choosing. You know we are very imaginative."

Despite the continuing missile threat, military authorities today told Israelis around the country to return to work but to carry their gas masks with them. During the first five days of the war, most Israelis were ordered to stay home and prepare safe rooms sealed against possible chemical attack. Schools remain closed, but authorities said they will probably be opened gradually next week.

In a debate in parliament today, senior figures of the ruling Likud and opposition Labor parties generally backed the government's decision to stay out of the war for now. Yitzhak Rabin, a former prime minister and defense minister, demanded to know what had failed in the Patriot system in Israel after a series of successes in Saudi Arabia.

However, he later told Israeli television that the country's first priority now should be supporting the United States in its battle against Iraq. He said that even if Israeli forces were to join the allied search-and-destroy mission in western Iraq, it was unlikely the missile threat to Israel could be eliminated quickly.

Health Minister Ehud Olmert, who reportedly has supported a hawkish government faction pressing for Israeli action against Iraq, told parliament that "any normal and healthy person in Israel . . . will spontaneously say that we should get back at {the Iraqis} so that they will scream out in pain and the whole world will hear the cries." But he added that Israel could not act on its emotions and had to be "wise" about its strategy.


© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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