An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome missile system in Ashdod, Israel, in response to a rocket launch from the nearby Palestinian Gaza Strip on March 11. (Jack Guez / AFP)
Tel Aviv — New technologies and procedures that proved effective last week in defending one-sixth of the Israeli population from Gaza-launched rockets are augmenting strategic options for Israel’s political leadership in response to growing threats.
Officials here creditedadherence to civil emergency procedures and Israel’s new Iron Dome intercepting system for Israel’s relative restraint during a week in which 1 million Israelis within 40 kilometers of the Gaza border were threatened by more than 250 rockets.
The rocket attacks were triggered by Israel’s March 9 aerial assassination of Zuhair al-Qaissi, a wanted Palestinian militant. The attacks quickly escalated to more than 50 per day as the Israeli Air Force struck weapons storage sites, rocket-launching squads and other targets throughout the Gaza Strip.
In five days of cross-border violence, interrupted by a short-lived, Egyptian-negotiated ceasefire, Israel waged 39 airstrikes that resulted in 26 deaths, according to Belal Jadallah, an independent Gaza-based journalist. Israel claims all but seven fatalities were militants who were involved in the fight.
During that time, the Israeli military said Iron Dome destroyed nearly 60 Grad-class rockets out of 75 intercept attempts — an unprecedented operational success rate of almost 80 percent.
In a March 13 visit to the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Brigade, Defense Minister Ehud Barak hailed the “extraordinary achievements” of Israel’s three deployed Iron Dome batteries. The system acted “as a deterrent for the other side,” Barak said, “while allowing for the freedom of action, maneuverability and discretion of our own political leadership.”
Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish, air defense commander for the Israeli Air Force, said last week’s performance of the Iron Dome validated doctrine and operational procedures developed for the world’s first active defense system against rockets and short-range missiles. In a March 15 interview, Gavish said IDF is readying its fourth battery for deployment and will continue to hone methods for expanding the defensive envelope.
When asked if Iron Dome tempered populist calls for renewed war in Gaza and helped influence the government’s relatively measured response to the salvos, Gavish replied: “I can’t say this was in the heads of decision makers, but the fact that this is an effective defense provides flexibility for the political echelon.”
Gavish said a key lesson from the latest cross-border escalation is the significant benefits to be gained from a combination of offense and defense.
“There is a general understanding that we now have a serious capability to limit the damage from the other side. In this round, to our good fortune, there were no serious casualties. But at the same time, as good as our defense is, it is not hermetic and our citizens need to obey the rules of Home Front command.”
He added, “We also need to remember that at the end of the day, the decisive outcome [of military operation] will be determined by offense, not defense.”
Brake or Accelerator?
While many here credit the physical and psychological security provided by Iron Dome for its calming effect on government decisions, others say new defenses will embolden proponents of military might. Just as missile defenses offer a convenient brake when the time is not right for military action, they also can serve as an accelerator for leaders bent on putting the pedal to the metal.
“Missile defense has a strategic function,” Efraim Inbar, director of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told Defense News. “It can make it easier for decision makers to make the tough calls required for offensive options.”
In a commentary published in the March 14 Jerusalem Post, Inbar and co-author Max Singer, founding director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, argued for a large-scale incursion into Gaza to destroy “terrorist infrastructure” of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups.
Among the reasons cited in favor of renewed war in Gaza is to greatly reduce the missile retaliation Israel would face in response to an attack on Iran.
“Not only would most or all of the Gaza missiles and the organizations preparing to use them be destroyed, but deterrence against the missiles from Lebanon and elsewhere would increase. Such an action would also bolster credibility in the international community that Israel really might attack Iran’s nuclear sites,” they wrote.
Addressing the Israeli Knesset on March 14, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited “the winning combination” of offensive capabilities, missile defenses and national resilience that may be required to fend off the Iranian nuclear threat.
Netanyahu blamed last week’s rocket attacks on Iran, insisting that Gaza has become a forward operating base for the Islamic republic. “Sooner or later,” he warned, “Iran’s terror base in Gaza will be uprooted.”
Netanyahu told lawmakers he achieved his two goals in Washington talks earlier this month with U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials: “The first was to clarify that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. The second was to elevate the threat of Iran’s nuclear weaponization to the top of the international agenda.”
He cited three historic examples in which Israeli premiers acted against the urgings of Washington: Israel’s 1948 declaration of its independent state; its pre-emptive attacks in the 1967 Six Day War; and the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
“We prefer that Iran will abandon its nuclear program. But the obligation entrusted to me is to preserve Israel’s independent ability to defend itself from any challenge,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli leader dismissed those urging Israel to conclude a Palestinian peace deal as a step toward solving the Iranian problem. “Whoever wants to believe [that an agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] will stop the centrifuges from spinning … is simply burying his head in the sand.”
On the contrary, Netanyahu insisted Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon brought the Iranian threat directly to Israel’s doorstep. “Everywhere we evacuated, the Iranians came in. And now there are those suggesting we do the same in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Biblical reference to the West Bank.
He added, “It is forbidden for us to repeat this mistake for the third time.”