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Iron Dome: Israel’s Double-Edged Sword (Part I)

The Almost Impenetrable Dome

By Michael Oren

The Nova festival massacre was a metaphor for Israel itself, a state lulled into complacency by an underestimation of Hamas’s offensive capabilities and the belief that the terrorists could be bought off with Qatari money.

At 6:28 in the morning of October 7, 2023, the coral sky over the Nova dance festival was streaked with rockets. The largest single barrage in the history of Hamas’s bombardments of Israel—2,000 fired within an hour—spurred the police guarding Nova to stop the music and instruct the celebrants to disperse. Many ignored the order, though; some even took selfies with the contrail-scored horizon. “Living in Israel, rockets aren’t abnormal,” thought Canadian-Israeli Shye Weinstein. “The Iron Dome is enough to keep us safe.” Thirty minutes later, hordes terrorists penetrated the grounds, mutilating, raping, and immolating 260 people and kidnapping at least forty more.

The Nova festival massacre was a metaphor for Israel itself, a state lulled into complacency by an underestimation of Hamas’s offensive capabilities and the belief that the terrorists could be bought off with Qatari money. But beyond the catastrophic misreading of its enemy, Israel fell victim to an overreliance on high-tech defense. Together with its state- of-the-art border surveillance system, drone observation, and security barriers both above and below the ground, Israel depended on Iron Dome. With an interception success rate of more than 90%, the batteries all but guaranteed that Israelis could continue to live and work normally even as Fajr-5 rockets, each capable of destroying their homes, targeted them.

I, too, fell for that false sense of security. Less than two years before, on May 11, 2021, I was in my apartment’s bomb-proof room and delivering a Zoom talk to hundreds of young Israeli emissaries around the world. Air raid sirens suddenly wailed yet I continued my lecture and even angled my computer screen toward the window to capture the flashes as, one-by- one, the Fajrs exploded in mid-flight. Though the emissaries later praised my heroism, the fact was that courage had nothing to do with it, only my confidence in Iron Dome.

That assuredness was the product of more than a decade of successes for Iron Dome (in Hebrew: Kippat Barzel). Championed by Brigadier General Daniel Gold, commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Research and Development Bureau, efforts to develop an anti-missile system gained fast traction following the firing of more than 8,000 rockets from Gaza between 2000 and 2008 and by the 4,000 rockets launched by Hezbollah, killing forty-forty Israelis and forcing a quarter million to flee, in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The task was hardly simple. Ever since Nazi Germany pummeled Great Britain with V- 1 and V-2 rockets during World War II, engineers had struggled to find a means of intercepting them. But then Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems performed the impossible. Working with the army, Rafael raced Iron Dome from drawing board to operational deployment in a mere four years.

The debut came on April 7, 2011, when one of the two existing Iron Dome batteries took down a Grad missile aimed at Ashkelon. It was history’s first interception of a short-range rocket. Over the course of 2012, when more than 2,000 rockets were fired at Israel, roughly a quarter were blocked by Iron Dome. The statistic proved misleading, however, since the system, capable of anticipating the missile’s trajectory a split-second after launching, operated only against rockets liable to hit population centers. Others are allowed to fall harmlessly into open fields or the sea; a large number land short of the border in Gaza itself. Deducting these rockets, Iron Dome’s success rate was closer to eighty percent.

These achievements caught the eye of the US government. Impressed by Iron Dome’s ability to take out not only short-range rockets but also mortar and artillery shells, the United States earmarked a remarkable $2.6 billion in the system over the next ten years. Such support was bipartisan, uniting successive administrations and Congresses, and came on top of America’s already-steep commitment to developing joint US-Israel missile defense systems—David’s Sling (interim range, anti-cruise missile), Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 (high altitude, anti-intercontinental missile). As Israel’s ambassador in Washington during much of this time, I was deeply engaged in procuring this aid. “Behind the Iron Dome stands a marble dome,” I told a Congressional committee, “the dome of the U.S. Capitol.”

American backing was not, however, entirely altruistic. Fearing the large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties certain to be inflicted if Israel were forced to invade Gaza as well as regional conflicts into which the United States might be drawn, the Obama administration preferred to bolster Israel’s defensive, rather than offensive, capabilities. Nor was the U.S. support string-free. Washington demanded access to Iron Dome’s secret technology and insisted on opening production lines for interceptors within the United States. Such concessions seemed a small price to pay, though, for the batteries, each with a price tag of $55 million and for interceptors that cost $60,000-$100,000 per round. Yet even those expenses paled beside those of the countless Israeli casualties liable to be inflicted by the unimpeded rockets and the even greater number of Palestinians who would be killed if Israel were forced to invade Gaza. Iron Dome, I wrote in Politico, was a direct investment in peace.

That case became less convincing, unfortunately, during the next round of Israel-Gaza fighting, Operation Protective Edge, in August 2014. Iron Dome, with a greatly expanded number of batteries and longer-range interceptors, again took out close to ninety percent of all the rockets that would have hit Israeli neighborhoods. The result was a lopsided casualty count. Though sixty-seven Israeli soldiers fell in the fighting, only six Israeli civilians were killed by rocket-fire. By contrast, between 2,300 and 2,500 Palestinians lay dead. For the first of many times, Israel would be accused of disproportionality.

The “D word,” as I came to call it, would predictably resurface with every round of fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. By May 2021, Operation Guardian of the Walls, saw 4,200 rockets fired at Israel by Hamas and PIJ, and a ninety-five percent success rate for Iron Dome. But the ratio of Israeli to Palestinian civilian deaths stood at fourteen to two hundred. As always, Israel took extraordinary measures to minimize collateral suffering—indeed, most of the Palestinian casualties were terrorists—but its efforts were largely discounted by the world. The “D word” became commonplace in public discussions about the operation, even in the TV commentary of John Oliver and Trevor Noah.

Why, when the Israelis were so well protected by Iron Dome, did they have to devastate Gaza? That was the question posed by so many leaders, journalists, and much of world opinion. When Israelis had access to bomb shelters and early warning systems, why then exact vengeance on the innocent Palestinians who had neither? Interviewing on CNN during the operation, I was asked—twice, without irony—why doesn’t Israel provide Iron Dome to Gaza?

Israel, it seemed, had the right to defend itself but only passively, shooting Iron Dome until it ran out of interceptors. The fact that millions of Israelis were huddled in those shelters and traumatized by the sirens, that tourists canceled their trips to the country and high-tech funds withdrew their investments, were insignificant compared to the thousands of Palestinians, whom, according to much of the world were purposely killed, maimed, and displaced by the IDF. And the fact that, even with a ninety-five percent success rate, five out of every one hundred rockets penetrated Israel’s defense, was routinely dismissed. While Israeli bombs and artillery shells could wipe out entire neighborhoods—so the argument held—Palestinians rockets were little more than firecrackers.

That reality reached monstrous proportions after the onslaught of October 7. Over the next eight months, Hamas would fire more than 12,000 rockets at Israel, but Iron Dome once again proved more than ninety percent effective. “Only” nineteen Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire. By contrast, the Gaza Health Authority—a euphemism for Hamas—claimed that the IDF killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Though half of the dead were terrorists, the world accused Israel of indiscriminately bombing and intentionally starving civilians. Alongside the “D Word” was now another: G, for genocide.

Welcome to the other side of Iron Dome—its soft underbelly. The system surely saves lives and prevents larger wars, but it also serves some the terrorists’ most fundamental and long-term interests. The “D Word,” I’ll explain in Part II, is only the beginning.

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