Strategically speaking, the Iron Dome antimissile shield, precisely because of its effectiveness, has been disastrous for Israel: It has saved Hamas from destruction and it has helped to seriously undermine Israel’s image as a civilized state in the eyes of many in the West.
During the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, Iron Dome has efficiently protected Israel from massive damage and casualties. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip had launched 2,648 rockets against Israel, and that was before a temporary cease-fire was broken Tuesday. Most fell in empty fields. The 600-odd rockets that had accurately targeted towns and villages were almost all successfully intercepted by Iron Dome’s Tamir missiles — a nearly 90% success rate, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
The civilian death toll in Israel consisted of only two citizens and a Thai guest worker. Had there been no Iron Dome, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians would have been killed; buildings would have fallen. Civilian Israel would have ground to a halt.
No Israeli government could withstand the public pressure that this would have unleashed: The government would have been forced to quickly launch a massive ground invasion of Gaza, which would have been the only way to bring the rocket barrage to a halt. As it is, the Israeli air campaign and a limited ground invasion have failed to halt the rockets.
If there had been a massive IDF ground invasion, within two or three months Gaza’s towns and villages would have been cleared, house by house, of Hamas fighters. Hamas, and its fellow organizations, would have been destroyed as a military and political force. Israel would have been relieved, for a decade or two, of the need to worry about a southern front; the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas would have been free, or freer, to cut a deal with Israel; and the destruction of Hamas would have sent a clear message about Israeli resolve and capabilities to all its actual or potential enemies (I include Islamic State, fast-approaching Israel’s eastern frontier, among the latter).
Iron Dome has “saved” the Israeli government from launching such a massive ground assault. It would, inevitably, have led to the death of hundreds rather than 60-some Israeli soldiers and many more Palestinians, most of them civilians (the Palestinian Health Ministry says 2,061 have been killed, most of them civilians). But Hamas remains intact.
And Iron Dome has been disastrous for Israel in yet another way: Without doubt, the pictures of massive destruction in Gaza in the wake of the limited Israeli air and ground response to the Hamas rockets, with its massive civilian toll among Palestinians, has badly harmed Israel’s image among liberal, humane Westerners. “Disproportionality” has been on everyone’s lips.
If there were footage of shattered buildings in Tel Aviv, and the dead and dying lying in the streets of the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, few around the world would condemn Israel for a massive air and ground assault against a palpably murderous Hamas, with the aim of destroying it. Over the months needed to pacify and demilitarize Gaza, no doubt protests would emerge. But the protests would have been less strident than they are today. Israel would weather the international indignation far better; Israel would be better understood.
One can add to these two “objections” to the Iron Dome system a third, minor quibble: It is costly in terms of dollars as well. Each Iron Dome battery costs about $100 million; Israel currently has nine batteries.
And each Iron Dome Tamir missile that Israel fires — and usually two are sent up to intercept each descending rocket — costs at least $50,000.
Each rocket Hamas fires costs $500 to $1,000 to produce. Hamas had 9,000 rockets at its disposal at the start of the recent conflict. Hezbollah reportedly has 100,000 rockets, including long-range Scuds. Do the math. How Israel might cope economically, not to mention militarily, with such a rocket deluge in a future clash is a very real problem.
So far, Israel has coped thanks to the generous financial support of the U.S., which has given Israel over the last decade or so more than $1 billion to cover Iron Dome. Indeed, this month President Obama signed off on an additional $225 million for the program.
Had there been no Iron Dome, perhaps Obama would have refrained from imposing anti-Israeli “sanctions,” as he did a few weeks ago when he held up the resupply
of Hellfire missiles for Israel’s Apache helicopters. The holdup was unofficially explained as stemming from U.S. concern that Israeli military behavior was resulting in too many Palestinian civilian deaths.
There is an irony here. The Hellfire missiles are precision weapons. Holding up their resupply could have meant that Israel was forced to use more dumb bombs, causing far more collateral damage. In other words, withholding smart weapons would probably result — and may already have done so — in Israeli use of weapons that cause far more civilian casualties.
Which, of course, runs contrary to Israel’s policy, whether driven by moral considerations or political expediency. Before fighting resumed this week, the Israeli air force had launched 4,762 strikes, mostly using precision weaponry. These strikes caused several hundred Arab deaths; the remainder were caused in the limited ground assault and by artillery strikes. This means the air force had expended several missiles per death — so either the pilots and munitions were of very poor quality or the Israelis were very, very careful in their targeting, and took great care not to harm civilians.
Obama knows all this, which makes his decision on the Hellfire sanctions that much more outrageous. Perhaps Israel (and Obama) will rethink Iron Dome as well.
Israeli historian Benny Morris is the author of “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”
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