On Wednesday, Jan. 6, the IDF attacked a group of Palestinians preparing to fire rockets into Israel from southern Gaza. On Thursday, Palestinians fired 10 rockets at Israel in retaliation for the previous day’s intercept, in which a Palestinian was killed. The Kerem Shalom border crossing was menaced by the rocket barrage, causing Israel to close it and aid trucks to pile up at the border. The IAF then dropped leaflets in Gaza for the first time since May 2009, warning Gazans against participating in attacks on Israel.
On most occasions, the appropriate response to this recitation might be: and your point is…? For over two decades, this kind of exchange has been one of the most common on earth. But that may be changing in the next six months, as Israel deploys a new defense system called Iron Dome.
Iron Dome, developed on an exceptionally rapid timeline, is designed to intercept exactly the short-range rockets with which the Israeli population is routinely menaced by both Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah. It’s a discriminating and potentially very cost-efficient system, intended to intercept only the incoming rockets that are on a trajectory to hit populated areas.
The Israelis are satisfied with Iron Dome’s performance in the latest tests and now expect to field it in southern Israel in the first half of 2010. Although there is a natural skepticism among Israelis about what Iron Dome can do for them, by objective military analysis, it’s a game-changer – assuming it works under the stress of operational conditions. The way to counter Iron Dome will clearly be by affecting the performance of its radars and computer systems. But that’s a category of operations requiring an unprecedented level and type of preparation on the part of the terrorists. Flinging rockets indiscriminately at Israeli territory cannot be compared with trying to interdict specific radars and computers, in terms of the planning and sophistication required.
Israeli operational calculations could also change. For the first time, the assurance of brutal, deterrent counterstrikes will not be the only thing standing between Israeli civilians and terrorist rocket attacks. The IDF could be buying some political latitude for its civilian leadership, even as it forces terrorists to reconsider their own methodology.
Much is riding on the performance of Iron Dome in the field. It has the potential to obviate, at least in part, the well-worn pattern of attack and retaliation represented by the events of January 6 and 7, 2010. Americans as well as Israelis should be watching its progress closely. Iron Dome is a missile shield that will face live, “real-world” testing very soon, and if it works as intended, its impact will be felt in the political as well as the military realm. We will see what happens when a population can be effectively defended against missile attacks.