By Lee Hiromoto
The recent escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants has showcased the effectiveness of the Iron Dome system, which displayed an impressive intercept rate of nearly 80% during the weekend of March 9-12, 2012. This display of technological prowess offers the one million Israelis who live within firing range of the Gaza Strip a measure of security and will allow the Israeli government to focus its efforts on dealing with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Problem: Thousands Of Rockets Launched Into Israel By Gaza-Based Palestinian Terrorists
Nearly forty years after winning the territory from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel completely withdrew both its military and civilian presence from Gaza in 2005, with the hope of spurring the peace process. Those dreams of peace were to remain just that, as over 9,000 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israel from neighboring Gaza since 2005, according to a report by the Israel Security Agency (also known as the Shin-Bet).
As a map prepared by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesperson’s Unit shows, crude mortar shells have a short range of about six miles, while larger and more sophisticated Grad missiles can reach up to 30 miles, well into Israel’s territory. Be’er Sheva, Ashqelon, and Ashdod are the three largest cities within the zone of fire. According to IDF estimates, about one million Israelis (out of a total population of 7.5 million) live within range of Palestinian projectile fire.
These rocket attacks constitute terrorism directed against Israeli civilians, having killed and maimed Israeli civilians. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Palestinian projectile fire killed nineteen Israelis (four of whom were minors) between 2004 and 2011. Even those unaffected physically are liable to suffer from psychological effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The most recent salvos of rocket fire have largely been launched by the terror group Islamic Jihad, believed to be supported by Iran.
Politically, Palestinian rocket fire forces Israel into the strategic bind of choosing between the lesser of two evils: a moderate response of precision strikes against terror cells that may be perceived domestically as soft on terror, or launching a broader escalation at great cost in terms of military resources and diplomatic legitimacy. A similar political need to act in late 2008 prompted Israel’s leadership to launch Operation Cast Lead, an air, ground, and naval campaign against militants in the Gaza Strip.
In military terms, Operation Cast Lead was a success, as the frequency of Palestinian rocket fire decreased dramatically, by as much as 90% according to the Israel Security Agency. However, Israel paid a heavy diplomatic price for this victory. The IDF asserts that 1,166 Palestinians died during the operation, of whom 709 were terror operatives, while B’Tselem claims that 1,390 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, of whom more than half (759) “did not take part in hostilities.”
The high body count led to a widely-publicized UN report by the South African Jewish jurist Richard Goldstone, which condemned both sides but singled out Israel’s actions as a “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population. . . .” Additionally, the Gaza operation was the beginning of a marked deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel, with spillover effects in Egypt. A correspondent for the New York Times called the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead Israel’s “worst diplomatic crisis in two decades.”
In short, the threat of Palestinian rockets put Israel in the unenviable position of choosing between military action to defend its population from rocket attacks or exercising self-restraint to maintain its international legitimacy.
The Solution: A First-Of-Its Kind Short-Range Missile Defense System
In 2007, Israeli Minister of Defense Amir Peretz selected the Iron Dome from competing short-range missile defense systems to answer the threat of rockets launched at southern Israel. The Israeli company Rafael was charged with developing the Iron Dome, which consists of three components: detection and tracking radar, a battle management center, and the interceptor launch system.
When a launch is detected, Iron Dome calculates the projectile’s trajectory and analyzes the threat level. Should a threat be deemed critical, Iron Dome then launches an interceptor. By disregarding rockets not headed for populated areas, the system avoids unnecessary interceptions. The system was first deployed in early 2011 and scored its first successful interception on April 7, 2011, marking the first time in history that Israel had successfully shot down a Palestinian rocket mid-flight.
Recent events in the Gaza Strip have highlighted the Iron Dome’s prowess in intercepting short-range projectiles. The targeted killing of a terror leader in Gaza on March 9, 2012 led to a surge in the number of rockets launched at Israel. According to the IDF, over 300 rockets were launched from Gaza from March 9 through March 13, of which over 165 landed on Israeli soil. Throughout the bulk of this period, the Iron Dome system boasted a successful intercept rate of 78.2%, having attempted sixty-nine interceptions and succeeded in fifty-six of them.
The Result: Greater Israeli Flexibility In Addressing The Iranian Nuclear Threat
Although the Iron Dome is not perfect (it is not as effective in fending off multiple rocket attacks and has suffered from technical failures), the system’s success could prove a game-changer for Israel, which is currently marshalling its diplomatic energies to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In this context, Israel does not want its international focus on the Iranian nuclear program distracted by a large-scale Israeli operation in Gaza like Cast Lead. In fact, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force has stated that the Iron Dome has prevented another potentially bloody Gaza offensive on the scale of Operation Cast Lead.
Without the Iron Dome’s purely defensive capabilities, Israel might be forced to take offensive action against militants in Gaza in response to domestic pressure to act. This would likely lead to global protests like those during Cast Lead, shifting the global debate on Israel from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the Palestinians. Thus the Israeli diplomatic campaign against Iran (including high-profile interviews with its Prime Minister and its Ambassador to the United States) would be replaced by a defensive diplomatic effort that would consume all the ink and airtime allotted to Israel in the press while monopolizing the Middle East agenda among foreign policy makers.
Given that prominent world leaders are opposed to an Israeli military strike on Iran, Israel’s current diplomatic efforts will play a critical role in advancing both diplomatic and military responses to the Iranian nuclear program. For example, Israeli lobbying in the wake of a International Atomic Energy Agency report on the Iranian nuclear program in late 2011 has yielded fruit in the form of stronger sanctions on Iran in section 1245 of the recently-signed National Defense Authorization Act and President Obama’s decision to freeze the U.S. assets of Iran’s central bank. Moreover, a successful unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would, according to some defense experts, seriously strain Israel’s capabilities, making international cooperation essential to a military resolution as well should diplomacy fail.
Against this strategic landscape, the Iron Dome offers more than the tangible gain of intercepting an impressive majority of rockets headed for Israeli cities and providing a measure of security for the country’s southern communities. By reducing domestic political pressure on the government in a manner that does not inflame international tensions, Iron Dome strengthens Israel’s diplomatic position to address what it perceives as the even greater threat of a nuclear Iran.