BEIRUT: The escalation in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in recent days is presenting Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system with its most critical challenge since being deployed in southern Israel a year ago.
So far, Israeli military and government officials claim that Iron Dome has destroyed some 90 percent of the 122 mm Katyusha rockets targeted by the system since the latest flare-up began Friday.
“The system has proven itself very well,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli Cabinet Sunday. He added that the Israeli government “will do everything in its power” to procure more batteries in the coming years.
But it remains far from certain that Iron Dome is capable of handling the mass rocket barrages it could face in a future war with Hezbollah. Furthermore, Iron Dome cannot reverse the strategic problem posed even by the relatively unsophisticated Qassem and Katyusha rockets from Gaza – the disruption of normal life in Israel.
Iron Dome is a mobile defense system designed to intercept rockets with ranges of up to 70 kilometers and is one of a planned three-tier anti-missile defense system employed by Israel. The other two systems are David’s Sling, which is designed to shoot down larger caliber rockets such as the Zelzal and M600 short-range ballistic missiles believed to be in Hezbollah’s arsenal, and Arrow, intended to intercept ballistic missiles such as Iran’s Shehab-3.
The first three Iron Dome batteries were deployed in March 2011 at Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba, towns vulnerable to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. A fourth battery is scheduled to be deployed in the area in the coming months along with another five by the middle of next year.
Iron Dome’s radar detects a rocket and calculates its projected trajectory. If the rocket is judged to fall in an open unpopulated area, it is left alone. But if it appears to be heading for an urban area or strategic site, an interceptor missile is fired to destroy the rocket in the air.
Since Israel assassinated Zahir Qaisi, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza Friday, some 130 rockets have been fired into Israel in retaliation. Around a third of the 133 were targeted by Iron Dome with the majority being successfully destroyed in the air.
Despite its apparent success in dealing with the flow of rockets from the Gaza Strip, the value of Iron Dome remains open to question against the more formidable threat posed by Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal.
In the month-long July 2006 war, Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets toward Israel, an average rate of 125 rockets a day, four times the rate of the latest Gaza escalation. The bulk of the rockets fired in 2006 were 122mm Katyushas and Syrian 220mm Uragans.
Since then, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is believed to have increased significantly not only in size but also variety. Iron Dome would struggle to defeat the larger Zelzal-2s and M600 missiles, which could strike targets in Tel Aviv and beyond. The David’s Sling system which is supposed to deal with larger caliber rockets is not yet operational.
It can be expected that in the event of another war with Israel, Hezbollah will attempt to overwhelm the Iron Dome system with heavy barrages of shorter-range Katyushas and Uragans, allowing the larger Zelzals and M600s to slip through and strike strategic targets such as military and infrastructure sites. Israel would require a considerable number of Iron Dome batteries to cover the Lebanon front, an expensive undertaking particularly as each interceptor missile costs around $52,000.
Yet the real flaw in Israel’s anti-missile systems is that they are a tactical solution to a strategic problem. The rockets fired by Hezbollah and Palestinian groups have always had a limited impact in terms of inflicting casualties.
One reason is that the short-range rockets fired by Hezbollah and the Palestinians in Gaza are inherently inaccurate. More often than not the rockets explode harmlessly in open land. In urban areas of northern Israel and around the Gaza Strip, residents have access to public bomb shelters or protected rooms in their homes which help reduce casualties.
Indeed, the estimated 37 Katyusha barrages between February 1992 (when Hezbollah rocketed Israel for the first time in retaliation for the assassination of party leader Sayyed Abbas Musawi) until the May 2000 Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon, left only eight civilians in Israel dead with some 182 wounded (one-third of them during Israel’s two-week Grapes of Wrath offensive in 1996).
The real impact of the rocket attacks was the disruption of normal life. During times of heightened tension in south Lebanon, Israeli civilians were ordered into bomb shelters sometimes for days at a time and life in northern Israel ground to a halt even if no rockets were fired.
During an escalation in February 2000, when Hezbollah killed seven Israeli soldiers in three weeks, the threat alone of Katyusha barrages crippled life in northern Israel. Israelis were kept confined to bomb shelters for 48 hours at a cost of $2.4 million a day in lost business, yet not one rocket was fired across the border.
In the 2006 war, some 100,000 to 250,000 Israelis fled to the safety of areas further south. The rest of the population in the north stayed in or close to shelters for the duration of the conflict.
In the next war, the entire northern half of Israel where most of Israel’s population lives potentially will be vulnerable to Hezbollah’s rockets and guided missiles and therefore effectively on the front line for the first time since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Residents of Tel Aviv could come under sustained and accurate rocket fire, dwarfing the Iraqi Scud crisis of 1991.
Even if Iron Dome and David’s Sling (if operational by then) are able to shoot down a significant number of incoming rockets, normal life for the bulk of Israel’s population will be completely disrupted, leading to panic, mass evacuations and population displacement.