The costly success of Israel’s iron dome


In the 12 days leading up to Thursday’s announcement of a ceasefire, Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched 4,369 rockets of varying sizes and ranges from Gaza into Israel. According to the IDF, nearly two-thirds of them missed their mark, hitting fields and other open areas, or malfunctioning and failing. There are still around 1,500 rockets heading towards towns. Remarkably, this barrage only killed a dozen people: more than 90% of the rockets were intercepted by the Israeli missile defense system, Iron Dome.

If you’ve watched coverage of the latest round of fighting in Gaza and Israel, you won’t have escaped the Iron Dome’s fireworks display, astonishing especially at night as rockets arching north from Gaza are overwhelming. fired from the sky in a litany of aerial explosions. When it was created over a decade ago, Iron Dome had its skeptics, both in Israel and abroad, but over time they and the world have seen it work. Literally.

It is a system that was designed for the challenge Israel faces, especially organizations on its borders, like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which do not have the personnel or the firepower to invade. and defy the IDF, but have amassed large arsenals of rockets which, though crude and imprecise, can target most of a small country like Israel. Each Iron Dome battery protects a relatively small piece of land, but Israel now has enough mobile batteries to protect endangered areas in times of stress.

This architecture is however only one of the unique characteristics of Iron Dome. In fact, its very strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the country that developed it, embodying Israel’s endless conflict with the Palestinians.

“On the one hand, Iron Dome is the perfect example of Israeli ingenuity and improvisation,” said journalist Yaakov Katz, who co-wrote Weapon wizards, a book on Israel’s arms industry, told me. “But its very success is a reflection of Israel’s biggest problem. Iron Dome lets you almost ignore the fact that you have a neighbor right across the border with thousands of rockets pointed at you because they can’t really hurt you anymore. Iron Dome allows you not to find deeper solutions to this problem. And it’s very Israeli too.

Iron dome is incredibly popular among Israelis, and that’s understandable. Although Israel has suffered a dozen deaths in the fighting this month, more than 240 Palestinians have died. This discrepancy, due in large part to the efficiency of Iron Dome, also results in physical damage to homes, buildings and infrastructure more generally. Even in an intense conflict like this, the missile defense system provides a sense of security.

But it also means that many Israelis do not feel the urgency, or enough optimism, to press their leaders to address the underlying issues that are causing the long-term crisis facing Gaza, where 2 million people live in a foul and overcrowded coastal strip, under nearly the total blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took power in 2007. Many also do not feel the need to address the historic conflict either. wide with the Palestinians since before Israel’s founding in 1948. According to pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, Israelis rank security first on their priority list, followed by financial concerns; resolving the conflict with the Palestinians generally ranks fifth or sixth and is viewed by Israelis as distinct from a sense of security. “You must be wondering,” Scheindlin told me, if the Israelis are focusing on security as defined by a piece of military hardware rather than on the central problem itself, “isn’t that a false sentiment? of security ? “

Much of what provides this sense of security is the visible deterrence offered by Iron Dome, cutting rockets into the sky. What the Israelis don’t see is the real heart of the system – not the interceptor missiles or mobile batteries, but the math. The algorithm that has been coded into the system, and which is constantly being improved, allows the Iron Dome control center to track and predict the trajectories of incoming missiles, determine where they may fall and issue orders to. intercept only if the point of impact is a built-up area, so as not to waste expensive interceptor rockets on harmless projectiles.

This level of calculation is also often attributed to the Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in office for 12 years. Netanyahu – like Iron Dome himself – has been able to hide small failures into greater success; he, like the missile defense system, has distorted the notion of the time available to him and his country to respond to threats; and he, like Iron Dome, used technology to hide deep structural societal flaws.

Take its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The whole world now knows that Israel was the fastest country to roll out COVID-19 vaccines and immunize the majority of its population. The program was a huge success, and Netanyahu sought to claim political credit for it. What is less well known, or at least overlooked, is that before vaccines were available, he presided over a chaotic set of coronavirus policies. For extended periods in 2020, Israel had the highest per capita rate of new infections reported in the world; only the relatively low median age of its population reduced the death toll.

Netanyahu’s COVID-19 failures have several reasons. Due to political pressure, both from the Trump administration and special interest groups in Israel, he was slow to ban air travel to and from the United States, the source of the Most of the first cases of COVID-19 in his country. And he refused to force Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, its main political allies, who live in de facto autonomy within Israel, to abide by the lockdown rules, allowing the virus to run rampant in their schools and schools. synagogues.

And in the same way that Iron Dome has changed the way Israelis view time – in terms of how long they have to react when projectiles are fired – Netanyahu has changed the way they view time in terms of outlook. long-term resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. For decades, politicians and experts at home and abroad have warned that Israel is running out of time to resolve the conflict – that international condemnation, pressure and even boycotts and sanctions will isolate it; and that internally it could not meet the challenges of the growth and resistance of the Palestinian population.

Netanyahu insisted on the contrary: if Israel remains steadfast, the world, including the Arab states, will abandon the Palestinian cause. He wrote in his 1993 book, A place among the nations, that “for the foreseeable future, the only kind of peace that will endure in the region between Arabs and Arabs and between Arabs and Jews is the peace of deterrence,” and that such a strategy should suffice until the world Arab realizes that he “has as much to gain from making peace with Israel as Israel has to gain from making peace with Arabs.” Iron Dome is one of his tools for keeping the peace of deterrence and making time work in Israel’s favor.

And then there’s Israel’s – and Netanyahu’s – dependence on technology to make up for more intrinsic flaws. When the first COVID-19 vaccines were about to be authorized by the United States, it bombarded Pfizer’s chief executive with dozens of phone calls to secure the first shipments to Israel. Here, as with Iron Dome, Israel’s high-tech prowess came to its rescue: Israel’s public health care providers, who were to be in charge of administering the vaccine, have medical records. digital technologies, and Netanyahu was able to offer Pfizer real time data on how the vaccine was working in exchange for the first shipments. In his office in Jerusalem, he now has two display cases: in one is a mock-up of an Iron Dome “Tamir” interceptor missile; in the other is the syringe that was used to inoculate it.

Yet behind this technological marvel lies a crumbling national infrastructure and failing social services for Jewish and Arab citizens. That is why, when the few rockets from Gaza passed through the Iron Dome shield this month, those killed were in almost all cases the elderly, disabled, poor, homeless or villagers. Arabs without government services and therefore without air raid shelter. And while the Israeli Air Force simultaneously operated Iron Dome and maintained a constant rate of airstrikes in Gaza throughout the recent campaign, in Israeli towns there were not enough police to cope. the riots that broke out between Arabs and Jews. Here we see another structural flaw in the Israeli state that Netanyahu overlooked.

With its remarkable success rate, Iron Dome comes as close as it gets to being the perfect defense system. It exemplifies Israel’s remarkable technological prowess and the country’s unwavering focus on defending its citizens. But Iron Dome’s enormous capabilities overlook more fundamental challenges, challenges the Israeli leader seems unwilling to solve.


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