Let me start with a controversial proposition: Thus far, Iron Dome has done Israel no favors. The technologically brilliant missile-defense system is praised as a shining exemplar of Israeli ingenuity—a point of pride. Indeed, criticizing Iron Dome to an Israeli or someone in the pro-Israel community is akin to speaking ill of Israel’s latest Eurovision finalist. However, I stand by my assertion. The latest round of fighting with Gaza shows why.
The problem with Iron Dome is not its technology. Its capabilities have impressed to the point that even the world’s preeminent arms exporter, the United States, has purchased batteries, as have several advanced European militaries. Its technology can save lives if used in a strategically wise manner. But to say that it has been used in such a manner would be an unprovable counterfactual. Indeed, the evidence suggests otherwise. Since Iron Dome became a mainstay of Israel’s arsenal, conflicts with Gaza have been longer, more destructive and resulted in more Israeli casualties.
A weapon is only as good as how it is used. To quote MK Yoni Chetboun, Iron Dome has become a “sleeping pill“ for the Israeli government. It has allowed Israel to manage the conflict with Gaza without having to seriously degrade the threat. Instead, despite a few flare-ups each year in which Israel claims each time to have dealt a “severe blow,“ “changed the equation” or something along those lines, Gaza militants rebuild and emerge with greater launch capabilities and new leadership.
The truth is that Iron Dome has allowed Israel’s government to avoid decisions that require unity and stability. It does this by enabling Israel to manage the conflict through what I call a greater skew towards defensive vs. offensive denial. Denial means blocking an enemy from hitting you. Deterrence means persuading an enemy not to hit you through the threat of hitting them back to the point that they calculate it is not worth it.
As I argue in my book Socializing Militants: How States End Conflict with Non-State Militants, terrorist entities that are willing to die to carry out an absolutist agenda cannot be deterred and cannot be negotiated with to end a conflict. Israel cannot agree to cease to exist on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) exist to fight Israel or die trying. You cannot deter a group of people willing to die by threatening them with death. At best, Israel can achieve a strategic pause during which these groups recover and prepare for their next aggression. This is precisely the pattern we see. Hamas is rearming while PIJ provides a shield as the current magnet for Israel’s strikes. Either Hamas will join in when it thinks the time is right, or PIJ will become the new big player in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. This is already taking place, with PIJ receiving an increasingly large share of Iranian support.
With deterrence off the table, Israel needs to effectively deny its enemies the ability to attack. Israel’s periodic strikes do not inflict anything close to a mortal wound. Within a few months, PIJ and Hamas will be better prepared than before this latest round and Israel will have better intelligence, precision and missile defense. So where does this go? The answer is a continuation of the same dynamic.
For Israel, this is a loss. It is an abnegation of the duties of a government for Israel to allow its south and increasingly its center to become war zones every few months. Israel must realize that effective denial requires offense, seriously degrading its enemies’ capabilities instead of relying on defensive capabilities that allow it to become increasingly comfortable with an ever-growing threat. Some call this strategy “mowing the lawn.” To effectively mow the lawn, Israel needs to use its army, not just its air force and missile defense. It requires ground forces to do more than take out tunnels. It requires a prolonged operation to kill off thousands of terrorists and destroy their arsenals. Israel has the capability. But does it have the will?
Israel paid with the lives of one percent of its population to emerge as a sovereign state in 1948. If in the past Israel had been unwilling to take casualties to prevent a noose tightening around its neck, it would never have been able to score its strategically crucial victories over its adversaries in 1948, 1956 and 1967. If Israel is no longer willing to pay the butcher’s bill, it will never have security.
Some ask why Israel needs to strike Gaza at all since it has Iron Dome. I heard a senior IDF officer answer: “Just because I’m wearing a cup doesn’t mean I will let you kick me in the groin all day.” For nearly two decades Israel has allowed its southern communities to be pummeled and abused, its children growing up under fire. Israel should use Iron Dome not to forestall military action but to defend the home front while it cleans house. Israel’s government must be willing to take risks. This requires the government, the media and the people to stop filtering every action or inaction through the lens of domestic politics. National security must supersede political bickering.
The Zionist ideal was a Jewish state willing and able to defend itself, not a state that is a punching bag for jihadists. Using Iron Dome to avoid risking IDF casualties and to put off tough decisions is not working. It is time to use the IDF for its intended purpose. Every soldier understands their duty to risk their lives to defend civilians. If given the order, Israeli soldiers will bravely take the fight to these terrorist organizations instead of allowing communities to be bombarded. This decision lies with the government. If Israel does not wish to retake control over Gaza, it must at least mow the lawn, and thoroughly this time. Iron Dome should enable this, not prevent it.