Israel's technical superiority and a civilian population whose confidence was boosted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system provided the country with breathing space for diplomacy that delivered a ceasefire in eight days with no need for a bloody ground invasion during the recent conflict with Gaza. (AFP)
TEL AVIV — As quiet descended over the skies of Israel and Gaza in late November, it became clear that a new kind of warfare was emerging that could counter an enemy’s asymmetric advantage through a combination of strategic surprise, surgical standoff and active anti-missile defense
Technical superiority and a civilian population whose confidence was boosted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system provided Israel with breathing space for diplomacy that delivered a ceasefire in eight days with no need for a bloody ground invasion.
Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense demonstrated that the enemy’s long-time asymmetrical advantage — in which cheap weapons inflict damage against a nation boasting a more expensive and numerically superior force — could be losing ground as Iron Dome levels the battlefield.
A leveling of that playing field, experts said, potentially redraws the threat picture in other regional nations such as Syria and Iran. It may also shift, without fully sidelining, the scenarios in which ground maneuvering forces could be used, experts said.
Officials and experts credit technological superiority and civilian staying power for their equalizing effect on asymmetrical tools and tactics used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza-based groups over the eight-day fight.
In the nation’s first large-scale operation in the new strategic environment sparked by the Arab Spring, Israel met its limited military objectives with minimal civilian casualties and with its international standing intact.
By refusing to be dragged into a bloody ground war that could coalesce the region’s Sunni-Shiite camps against the Jewish state, experts here insisted Israel’s Gaza campaign empowered Egypt, Qatar and other Sunni states at the expense of Iran and its Shiite clients in Lebanon and war-wracked Syria.
“Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, like the ongoing crisis in Syria, constitutes a sort of microcosm of the process of change reshaping the Middle East,” retired Lt. Col. Michael Segall, a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote in a 16-page analysis published by the think tank.
“The regional and international dynamic that accompanied the [Israel-Gaza] crisis, along with Israel’s successful deflections of Iranian missiles fired at its cities, puts Iran in a problematic position of growing isolation. ... Its ongoing attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street are failing due to its role in militarily supporting the repressive [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad regime,” Segall wrote.
Segall, a Farsi-speaking former Iran desk chief within Israeli military intelligence, wrote that Tehran’s efforts to discredit the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome stemmed from its opposition to the deployment of regional strategic missile defenses.
“The impressive feats of Israel’s Iron Dome … places a large question mark over the Iranian asymmetrical-war doctrine to which Iran devotes so much effort. The stationing of similar systems in the Gulf states, or their addition to staging areas in case of a military operation against Iran, could undermine the response Iran is planning for a possible conflict and/or attack on its nuclear facilities,” Segall wrote.
Mideast analyst Gerald Steinberg, a Bar Ilan University professor, said Israel’s operational achievements in Gaza, coupled with constructive diplomatic support from Egypt and other U.S. regional allies, has weakened Iran politically and militarily. Moreover, he said, Israel’s demonstrated ability to defend against salvo attacks “basically quashes that entire dimension of Iranian strategy.”
Nevertheless, Steinberg and others here warned it is still too early to draw lasting lessons from Israel’s Gaza strategy or the political conditions anchoring the Egyptian- and U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement.
Since the truce took effect Nov. 21, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has become mired in domestic strife over Muslim Brotherhood-proposed power grabs. He may be too preoccupied, experts here said, with the survival of his fledling government to stem Iranian arms smuggling through Sinai into Gaza, as truce terms demand.
At the same time, U.S. and European outrage over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to build thousands of new homes in a particularly sensitive corridor linking East Jerusalem and the West Bank could alter the cooperative dynamic needed for a sustainable ceasefire, experts here said.
‘No Turning Back’
Uzi Rubin, founding director of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Missile Defense Organization, said capabilities manifested by both sides of last month’s rocket battles herald a new era of “pushbutton warfare” from which “there is no turning back.”
“Pillar of Defense will likely be remembered for revealing the face of future warfare, where pushbutton warriors on both sides — from bunkers and tunnels in Gaza and from operation centers and command-and-control trailers in Israel — clashed on an empty battlefield while maneuvering forces remained sidelined,” Rubin said.
In a Dec. 4 interview, Rubin said specific scenarios could still dictate the use of maneuvering ground forces, but they are not a prerequisite for future warfare. In contrast, he said, Israel can no longer contemplate military action without a robust nietwork of active defenses.
“Defense has become a central pillar in Israel’s ability to prevail in future battles,” said Rubin, a Tel Aviv-based international defense technology consultant. He added, “This situation will be even more significant in cases where the other side initiates battle prior to Israel’s pre-emptive attack.”
According to Rubin, a key lesson from Gaza is the need to rethink military modernization priorities, given the rapidly advancing Iranian missile threat and its race to bolster the rocket and missile arsenals of its proxies along Israel’s borders.
“The threat is racing forward. We need to run just in order to stay in place,” Rubin said.
In a comprehensive, 28-page preliminary assessment prepared for Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Rubin details operational achievements from last month’s battles and concludes with lessons likely to be drawn by both sides.
Using open-source data, Rubin analyzed the types of rockets launched from Gaza, their operational effects and Israel’s ability to defend against incoming threats. He noted several Palestinian precedents from last month’s campaign, including the targeting — albeit unsuccessful — of Jerusalem, a higher launch tempo than that of Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war, and a nascent ability to generate the real-time intelligence needed to create targets of opportunity during the fighting.
All told, Gaza-based militants launched 1,506 rockets, 152 of which didn’t reach Israel and 875 of which fell in open areas. Of the remaining 479 designated by Israel’s Iron Dome as threats to life or property, 421 were intercepted, a success rate of nearly 88 percent.
Rubin listed three categories of rockets launched in last month’s fight, most from Iran, some produced in Gaza with Iranian technology and a few shorter-range rockets from stores of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Segal, the retired military intelligence officer, noted that during last month’s Pillar of Defense operation, Iranian officials — including Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — openly boasted about the weaponry smuggled and the technology transferred to Gaza.
Unlike earlier conflicts with Israel, in which Iran couched the extent of its support for Palestinian resistance, “This time, it was amazing how confident they felt in flagging their ability to supply Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Segall told Defense News on Dec. 6.
Despite Israel’s destruction of most of the category 3 Fajr-5s, Palestinians managed to launch 12 of these 1-ton rockets, four of which overflew Jerusalem and landed in the West Bank. Iron Dome intercepted seven of the eight heavy rockets fired at Tel Aviv, but the one that leaked through Israeli defenses claimed one life when it landed in Rishon Lezion, south of the city.
Six Israelis were killed during the seven days and five hours before the Nov. 21 truce, including four who disregarded Civil Defense safety procedures in their desire to witness the pushbutton war.
The Hamas Health Ministry listed 163 killed from more than 1,500 Israeli standoff strikes, mostly by air with support from sea-based missiles.