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What happened to Israel and Palestine during the 1991 Gulf War?

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait opened a huge rift in an Arab world once unified, at least rhetorically, in support of Palestinian rights. Siding with Iraq, the Palestinians were quickly ostracized by many, particularly Gulf, leaders. The rift grew as more Arab states agreed or succumbed to pressure to join the U.S.-led coalition. Palestinian abandonment grew more severe.

In Israel, the threat of attack by Iraq grew. Rumors of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons fed the fears among Israelis, as gas masks were distributed and citizens were instructed to create sealed rooms in their homes to protect from chemicals. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation were largely denied gas masks, engendering fury across the occupied territories, to the degree that some Palestinians actually cheered the prospect of incoming scud missiles. The government agreed to a U.S. demand that Israel not retaliate, even to a direct Iraqi strike, in order to maintain Arab participation in the coalition, and in return agreed to protect Israel.

When fighting began, Iraq did indeed fire several dozen missiles against Israeli cities. None were armed with chemical or biological weapons, and none did major damage. Casualties included two Israelis killed in the attacks, along with some who died from stress-related heart attacks and from misuse of gas masks. Israel did not respond militarily to the Iraqi strikes.

The end of the war, with Iraq qualitatively defeated and weakened, left Israel in a very strong position. It used its elevated influence in Washington to shape the terms of the post-war Madrid conference—including exclusion of the United Nations, and severe restrictions on the nature of Palestinian participation. Those restrictions included rejection of a separate Palestinian delegation; Israel maintained the right to veto all Palestinian participants to insure that only Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza could negotiate for the Palestinians. Any Palestinians from East Jerusalem, anyone with official ties to the PLO, and anyone from the far-flung Palestinian diaspora were all excluded.

The major compromise the Palestinians made in 1988, when they declared an independent state and accepted a two-state solution, thus accepting a state on only 22 percent of their historic territory, was largely ignored after the Gulf War. The intifada had brought new credibility and political power to the Palestinians and the PLO; by the end of the Gulf crisis, most of that momentary power was lost.