A week into Operation Pillar of Defense, Israeli casualties remain miraculously low and the IDF remains firmly ensconced on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, passing the time by playing cards and the smartphone game Words with Friends. To the surprise of many, the Israeli government has yet to order its ground forces into the Hamas-controlled enclave, as it did four years ago in Operation Cast Lead and into Lebanon during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. This lack of a ground invasion is in part due to the remarkable success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
As a result of its forbearance, Jerusalem has garnered both overwhelming domestic support and solid international backing for its response, giving Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government a flexible set of military and political options in continuing the operation. By not suffering the heavy casualties that would force any Israeli leader’s hand, Netanyahu can choose when and how to respond, maximizing Israel's leverage over Hamas and ending the operation on Israeli terms.
Iron Dome has been nothing short of miraculous. Developed after Israel’s 2006 Second Lebanon War to defend against future Hezbollah rocket fire (a Rafael brochure even depicts Iron Dome deployed around Haifa, not southern Israel), Iron Dome became operational in early 2011. The system’s concept is remarkably simple, but represents a major technological achievement. Once a missile from Gaza is launched, Iron Dome’s radar identifies its trajectory. If it is headed towards a populated area, the battle management and control center fires an interceptor missile, selecting the highest possible intercept point where the resulting shrapnel from the explosion would fall harmlessly to the ground.
Having already been tested by Hamas rocket fire over the past 18 months, the Iron Dome system has a nearly 90 percent success rate and is capable of intercepting rockets with ranges of 45 miles. Each Iron Dome battery, five of which are now deployed, can protect an area of 60 square miles.Rafael, Iron Dome’s maker, has added a night shift to its Tamir missile interceptor assembly line and, yesterday, the Israeli Ministry of Defense signed a $200 million contract to expand the procurement of more Iron Dome batteries , aiming for 13 total batteries with major financial aid from the United States.
By nearly removing civilian casualties out of the Israeli decision making equation, Iron Dome has allowed Israel to dictate the course of the conflict rather than react to it. Acknowledging Iron Dome’s prowess, Hamas has even stripped the warheads from some of its missiles in order to increase their range. Knowing that it has the full and overwhelming support—close to 90 percent, according to one poll —of its citizenry, the Israeli government has multiple options and can continue its current air campaign for weeks, as it has threatened, or order a ground offensive that can also be paced according to Jerusalem’s political objectives.
In a press conference with the UN Secretary General, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman asserted that if Israel is forced to launch a ground assault on Gaza, it would resemble “Operation Defensive Shield”, the 2002 brutal reconquest of Palestinian cities to end the unrelenting suicide-bomb campaign, which had been prompted by the murder of 30 Israelis at a Passover Seder in Netanya. In Israel’s two most recent conflicts, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009, the previous Israeli government was flustered and hamstrung by its inability to end the rocket fire through air power alone, and ultimately ordered a politically disastrous and militarily nebulous ground invasion in Lebanon and a more limited ground incursion in Gaza that earned Israel international opprobrium.
During both of those recent conflicts, then Prime Minister Olmert’s options were increasingly squeezed by Israelis demanding that their government do all that was necessary, including a ground invasion, to end the intolerable rocket fire and by the heavy pressure from the international community to forestall one, even as rockets continued to rain on the Israeli population. This time around, the presence of Iron Dome allows Israel to threaten deep and extensive ground action in Gaza, upping the pressure on Hamas and its backers, while keeping both international and domestic support.
Of course, Iron Dome is not solely responsible for successful protection of the Israeli populace. The Israeli Air Force, through meticulous intelligence gathering, has eliminated hundreds of missiles, including most of the Iranian-made long-range Fajr-5 missiles in the opening strike. Additionally, years of investment in passive defense measures, such as bomb shelters, hardened infrastructure, and a nationwide siren alert system, have proven important. Smartphone apps alert users of the “Red Color” air raid siren and indicate the location of the nearest bomb shelter.
Moreover, Iron Dome is not impermeable. Interceptors have misfired, targets have been missed, including a communications malfunction which could be responsible for the initial three Israeli casualties, intercept shrapnel still causes damage, and the communities closest to Gaza, such as Sderot, are too close to be covered.
Even with the increased protection, Israelis are not living normal lives during the conflict. Half of Israel’s population is within missile range, including for the first time Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israelis are being told to be no more than 15 seconds away from bomb shelters. Images of Israelis seeking cover behind their cars on highways and of people fleeing unprotected beaches for cover are ubiquitous. International commerce has been upended as Ashdod, Israel’s second-largest port, is within range of Grad rockets; cargo vessels have been told to wait out at sea until nightfall when they are quickly shuttled in and unloaded.
Yet, even with its hiccups, Iron Dome has been a strategic and political boon to Israel. No longer forced by high civilian casualties to make less-than-desired military decisions, Israel can choose the timing, manner, and depth of its response. Had some of the Fajr-5 missiles aimed for Tel Aviv not been intercepted by Iron Dome, the resulting mass casualties would have provoked a necessarily fierce response from the IDF. Instead, Jerusalem has patiently called up its reserves, publicized the number called up as larger than both the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead combined, and waited for Hamas to agree to its ceasefire terms.
With only a handful of casualties so far, Israel can direct the manner, scope, and timing of its moves according to its own objectives—not those of Hamas. If an Israeli ground operation does occur, its timing and objectives will be greatly affected by Iron Dome’s great achievements.
Gabriel Scheinmann is a Ph.D student at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.