by Paul Iddon.
In October 1991, less than a year after the Gulf War at least two Israeli F-15 Eagle air superiority jet fighters took off from Israel and made a round-trip that violated the air spaces of five Arab countries before returning home (see figure at right).
The F-15s first flew north over the Mediterranean Sea, then over northern Lebanon and through Syrian airspace before slowing down over the airspace of western Iraq where they reportedly searched, with their reconnaissance cameras, for any Iraqi surface-to-surface Scud missiles before then heading home through Saudi Arabian and Jordanian airspace.
An Iraqi complaint to the United Nations claimed that four Israeli F-15s were involved in the overflight. It also said the planes flew at low altitude when crossing the Syrian border to Iraq before then climbing “to more than 20,000 feet” and flying “over the region of Al-Qa’im and Al Walid in western Iraq”.
While news reports at the time cited intelligence services for the route taken by the Israelis one George H.W. Bush administration official claimed the Israelis flew straight through Jordan for the operation. However, the reported aforementioned route makes a little more sense since it entailed flying through the air spaces of each country once. After all, this incident came before Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Amman had claimed in 1991 that if Israeli warplanes crossed their territory to try and bomb Iraq they would attempt to shoot them down. If the Jordanians were serious then running the risk of crossing through their airspace twice to western Iraq would have increased the risk that the Israeli jets would have been targeted.
The reconnaissance mission served as an apt reminder of the impressive capabilities of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). It came six years after eight Israeli F-15s conducted an airstrike from almost 2’000 km away against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunisia (Operation Wooden Leg) and ten years after the daring Israeli airstrike on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear facility in Baghdad (Operation Opera).
Another similar operation would take place in September 2007, when the Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site at al-Kiba (Operation Orchard).
The October 1991 overflight is retrospectively interesting for its length, nature and the number of air spaces the planes managed to violate without getting shot down. Israel did not participate in the Gulf War earlier the same year under pressure from Washington, which feared that an Israeli retaliation to Iraqi Scud missiles attacks against two of their major cities (Tel Aviv and Haifa) in January could fragment the coalition of Arab countries the Bush administration had assembled to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Saddam clearly intended to provoke Israel into retaliating for the same reason.
A total of 39 Scuds were fired at Israel during that war, resulting in over a thousand injuries (mostly caused by flying glass and panic attacks) but astonishingly only two direct deaths. In order to placate the Israelis from retaliating US-led coalition warplanes were diverted to fly low and scan the western Iraqi desert for mobile launchers while British Special Air Service (SAS) also searched for them on the ground.
Lawrence Eagleberger, briefly Bush’s secretary of state, became so convinced that they could not dissuade the Israelis from retaliating that he reportedly sought to influence Israeli leaders on how to retaliate. Instead of Israeli F-15 or F-16s flying to Iraq to bomb Baghdad alongside the coalition, where they might have ran the risk “of a direct air force clash with Jordan or Saudi Arabia”, Eagleberger urged the Israelis to retaliate only using their own surface-to-surface Jericho missiles against Iraq.
There were many suggested reasons as to why Israel did not do this: ranging from the fact Iraq was already being pulverized by the coalition and that an Israeli missile attack might not have even been noticed, to the fact Jericho strikes alone were unlikely able to single-handedly eliminate the Scud threat.
Authors Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv give another reason in their 1994 book “Friends in Deed: Inside the US Israel Alliance“. The authors summarize how the Bush administration urged Israel to use Jericho’s to retaliate against Iraq, if the Israelis concluded they had no choice but to attack Iraq, and add another reason Israel didn’t opt to use these weapons.
“What the US officials didn’t know at the time was that the Jericho missiles – which Israel to this day has not admitted to possessing – were not fully operational, and thus Israel did not have a ready option for an unmanned strike against Baghdad,” recalled Melman.
Having sat out the Gulf War and endured the wrath of Saddam’s Scuds Israel’s October 1991 flyby across the region was quite bold and daring and may well have been its not so subtle way of once again demonstrating its military prowess and its reach against potential enemies.