Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, on May 11. (Image: AFP)
The simplicity of the idea had proved seductive: A homeland for the world’s Jews, cradled together with Palestine’s Arabs in the arms of Imperial Britain. Then, in 1923, came a warning. “Every native population, civilised or not, regards its lands as its national home of which it is the sole master,” the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky observed, “and it wants to retain that mastery always; it will refuse to admit not only new masters but, even new partners or collaborators... It is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting ‘Palestine’ from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority.”
Israel, Jabotinsky concluded, “can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population—behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach”.
The strategic rationale for Israel’s missile defence is elegant: it saves lives; denies adversaries critical leverage, eases pressure on the leadership to resort to clumsy military action. Like all elegant rationalisations, though, this one isn’t going quite to plan. Technology can provide solutions to tactical military problems; it does not give guidance on how complex political problems ought be addressed.
For the very reasons it was built, and despite its technological success, Iron Dome is proving a strategic failure; an education in why military prowess can lead to less security, not more.
Early in the 2000s on, even as Israel became increasingly adept at containing terrorist and insurgent threats, it came under increasing threat by the growing inventories of crude, short-range missiles amassed by Hezbollah and Hamas. Although the rocket assaults proved considerably less lethal than Israel’s own military operations against its adversaries, they imposed significant physical costs on the country’s civilian population, as well as damage to property, bases and assembly areas.
“Like good lab rats”, one Israeli journalist recorded, citizens along its borders learned to live in a world under constant attack. “We learned to drive with our car windows open so we could hear sirens while on the open road. We taught our children how to fall asleep again once we moved into the safe room in the middle of the night”.
Amir Peretz, Israel’s then-defence minister, authorised the pursuit of Iron Dome in the wake of the 2006 war in Lebanon, in the face of considerable scepticism. “People responded to the proposal by laughing in our faces,” recalled Shlomo Toaff, the head of the Iron Dome directorate, they weren’t even polite enough to laugh outside.
Iron Dome was initially designed not to protect civilians, but the Israel Defence Forces’s (IDF's) critical infrastructure. Designed to interdict incoming rocket, artillery, and mortar, the system proved able to hit targets with a range of about 7–70 km. Having precisely tracked an incoming warhead, the interceptor missile detonates within a meter of the target. The operators are able to pick and choose which incoming rockets to fire at, and ignore misdirected fire that poses no threat...
Leaders, though, soon realised that Iron Dome had political value. Increasingly, the system became focused on the defence of high-value targets, like population centres.
Iron Dome, the scholar Elizabeth Bartels has observed, was proving its worth by 2012. In the course of the 2012 Pillar of Defence conflict, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired more than 1,456 rockets into Israel, averaging about 215 rounds per day. Iron Dome intercepted as many as 85 percent of the rockets it targeted, and the rockets caused six civilian deaths, compared to 44 casualties in 2006.
Later, in 2014, Hamas and others launched a total of about 4,500 rockets and mortars from July 8 to August 26. The interception rate went up to about 90 percent; only two individuals were killed.
For a number of reasons, though, Iron Dome isn’t proving to be a magic shield. First, the rockets being fired from Gaza are extremely cheap: whereas Iron Dome’s interceptor missiles are estimated to cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are using DIY technology. Their rockets are simply steel piping with crude fins, using a combination of fertiliser and sugar as rocket fuel, and locally made explosive in the warheads. Iron Dome, inexorably, imposes a severely asymmetric cost on the defender, one of the key objectives of all insurgents.
The low cost of the Gaza rockets also means that it is possible for attackers to try and overwhelm Iron Dome, using multiple simultaneous attacks. The level at which Iron Dome will be overwhelmed is a closely held secret, but some independent experts estimate it is reached at around 1,500 simultaneous incoming targets. To prevent that level from being reached, Israel will have to launch strikes against missile batteries in Gaza, causing heavy civilian losses—and thus end up in the cul-de-sac Iron Dome was designed to avoid.
Even though Iron Dome has done well against Hamas’ limited technology, Bartels notes, it may prove less than effective against more sophisticated adversaries like Hezbollah. From relatively simple achievements, like flattening the trajectory of their missiles, to more new tools like drones: Iron Dome may not always prove successful.
In a thoughtful analysis, Lazar Berman has noted that the illusion of iron-clad defence has led the IDF, and political-decision makers, to ignore festering problems. “As the prime minister and others declare victory in front of Iron Dome batteries, Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s capabilities continue to grow,” Berman argues. As important, there’s little appetite within the political leadership for the grinding ground operations that are necessary for the IDF to genuinely undermine Hamas.
Even more important, the idea that Israeli civilians can survive attack under Iron Dome’s protection has let Israeli leaders cling to the delusion that there is no need for them to urgently pursue political solutions. Even if all blame for the latest fighting is assigned, for the sake of argument, to Hamas’ corrupt and tyrannical government in Gaza, that does not change the fact that millions of Palestinians endure poverty and oppression as a consequence of Israeli polices. Failure to address these grievances empowers Israel’s enemies—and perpetuates the conflict.
The iron wall, Jabotinsky wrote, would lead Arab leadership to “pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions”. “Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizen, or Arab national integrity. And when that happens, I am convinced that we Jews will be found ready to give them satisfactory guarantees, so that both peoples can live together in peace, like good neighbours”.
Iron Dome, just like the iron wall, threatens to become an obstacle in the way of the aims it sought. Israel’s military superiority and victories have not brought it peace, because political leaders have resisted making the necessary sacrifices. Power is a tool; turned into an object of veneration, it threatens those who wield it.