Is Israel’s Iron Dome air defense too good?

Hamas in the Gaza strip has launched more than 1,000 deadly rockets at Israel, reaching as far as the outskirts of Jerusalem. 

Because the Hamas rockets are not too accurate, and thanks to Israel’s extensive civilian defense system, based on warning alarms and hardened shelters, Israel has not suffered too great a loss of life.

Iron Dome, Israel’s home-grown air defense system, has knocked out between 90% and 95% of the Hamas rockets that could have hit populated areas or sensitive infrastructure. 

Yet some in the Israeli press, and the Jewish press outside Israel, have been raising questions about Iron Dome. The questions are not about the effectiveness of Iron Dome as an air defense system, but rather question if owning Iron Dome has caused Israel to confidently parry rocket attacks by Hamas and not do much about the threat Hamas poses.

Now, in the latest massive attacks by Hamas, Israel needs to decide whether its air power is enough to stop Hamas, or whether it needs to use its ground army. As this was written, Israel had called up some reservists and is posting forces along the Gaza border.

To a certain extent, the critics are right. Iron Dome, along with Israel’s other air defense systems, has given the Israeli government confidence that it could manage terrorist threats. 

To a degree, this permitted some complacency by Israeli leaders to the extent that, Hamas and Hezbollah both have been systematically bolstering their rocket and missile capabilities, with supplies pouring in from Iran.

It isn’t that Israel has not tried to blunt the supply of missiles, especially newer models that are far more accurate and have longer ranges than before. Frequent efforts to interdict supplies, on the high seas in the case of Gaza, and by bombing warehouses and transport sites in the case of Syria, have been carried out. 

Israeli forces detain a group of Arab-Israelis in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod on May 13, 2021, during clashes between Israeli far-right extremists and Arab-Israelis. Photo: AFP/Ahmad Gharabli

The cycle repeats again

Unfortunately, it is clear these efforts have fallen short of the mark and both Hezbollah and Hamas have very big arsenals.

Beyond the policy of trying to stop the supply of weapons, Israel has also retaliated from time to time when Hamas or Hezbollah have used their weapons against Israeli targets.

Israeli towns near the Gaza border, most notably Sderot and Ashkelon, have been repeatedly attacked over the past few years. Typically Israel retaliates, Hamas “relents” and asks for, and gets, a cease-fire until the cycle repeats again.

What is different now is that the attacks are not just near the border but well into central Israel, including Tel Aviv and its suburbs but, even more importantly, that the Hamas attacks are synchronized with an intifada by Israeli Arabs – sometimes called Israeli Palestinians even though they are Israeli citizens. 

Israeli intelligence, which is world-class, seems to have failed to grasp the level of domestic insurrection and its links to Hamas. If they were under some illusions, they only need to look at the al-Aqsa Mosque where Hamas flags are flying.

While this is truly a changed situation from prior Hamas attacks, it is a formidable challenge. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarkable 12 years in office, he and his cabinet have resisted any ground attack against Gaza. They have considered the Hamas threat “manageable” and they have relied on Iron Dome and counter-air operations to maintain public confidence.

Why did Netanyahu resist frequent calls to attack Hamas in Gaza? There are three main reasons: one is that the attacks caused minimal damage and only a few casualties, making them far below the line of being an existential threat.