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Israel’s Iron Dome defense protects lives – but there’s an unexpected effect

The defense system may leave Israel fewer incentives for a political solution to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

- May 14, 2021

Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza and other militias, fired more than 1,700 rockets into Israel in early May 2021, in response to the threat of eviction of Palestinian residents in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and violence in the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli-made and U.S.-funded anti-rocket “Iron Dome” intercept system claims to have stopped about 90 percent of these missiles.

Israel has responded with a massive air campaign against Gaza reminiscent of the wars in 2009 and 2014. This cycle of conflict suggests that the success of Iron Dome may have the perverse consequence of helping to perpetuate the Gaza-Israel conflict.

When President Barack Obama granted $225 million to Israel in 2014 to help fund the Iron Dome, the White House press secretary declared that the “United States is proud that the Iron Dome system … has saved countless Israeli lives.” But the unintended consequences of this protective system complicate the story — by reducing the expected costs of bombing Gaza, Iron Dome allows Israel to act with less concern for civilian casualties, and gives Israel less incentive to find a political solution to its conflict with Gaza.

Israel’s options were limited

Casualty sensitivity, which mounted in Israel after the invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, was among the driving forces behind Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. This syndrome led Israel to shift risk from Israeli troops onto Gazan civilians. Israel followed other Western countries that took similar moves, by attacking the enemy from a distance with the use of excessive lethality through artillery, aircraft, drones and other means, all sometimes with relatively limited discrimination between combatants and noncombatants. Risk can be shifted even when ground forces are deployed, but adopt tactics that attack from distance and minimize close engagements.

Such tactics characterized Operation Cast Lead, launched in 2008-2009 to stop Hamas rocket fire on Israeli civilian communities. Dragged into a ground operation, Israeli troops killed at least 300 Gazan civilians yet lost only nine soldiers.

The international criticism that followed and the subsequent U.N. investigation, which accused Israel of crimes against humanity, made Israel even more cautious. When it faced renewed rocket fire from Gaza, Israel preferred to not subject its own civilians to prolonged threat and the disruption of daily life. Nor was a ground operation viable — that would have put Israeli troops at risk, without the option to shift much of the risk onto Gaza’s civilians.

Iron Dome offered an optimal solution

Iron Dome addressed this tension between protecting Israeli civilians and soldiers and limiting potential harm to Gazan civilians. Israel deployed this system for the first time in 2012, in Operation Pillar of Defense, launched for similar reasons as Cast Lead, in 2008. Rather than simply protecting Israeli civilians targeted by rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome produced a number of unexpected effects.

First, Israel gained freedom of action against Hamas (for example, imposing restrictions on trade between Gaza and the West Bank), knowing that their responses, and those of other militias, would have limited impact on Israeli lives. By intercepting almost all incoming rockets, Iron Dome released the Israeli leadership from political pressure to resolve the Gaza-Israel conflict, except from promoting short-term steps to improve the economy in Gaza.

Second, Iron Dome has sharply reduced the risk to Israeli civilian communities — in the past decade, before the recent conflict, only 18 Israeli civilians have been killed in the Gaza-Israel hostilities. This further mitigates domestic pressures on Israel to launch a risky land operation, to try to reoccupy Gaza or topple the Hamas regime. Indeed, such pressures arose from rightist sections with the prolongation of Cast Lead and especially Operation Protective Edge, launched in summer 2014. When Hamas made several attempts to enter Israeli territory through tunnels it had dug along the border, pressures mounted to launch a ground operation to deal with the tunnels. Israeli society tolerated 65 casualties incurred by what they perceived as an emergency attempt to destroy the tunnels.

But the defense system perpetuates the conflict

Here’s the ironic outcome: Even as Iron Dome enables devastating Israeli bombardment from the air, it protects Gazan civilians from potentially devastating outcomes of an Israeli ground offensive, which would be the likely alternative. The increasing legal scrutiny of Israel’s wars, from the U.N. investigations that followed the earlier operations and the current attention from the International Criminal Court, gives Israel an interest in diminishing global pressure for military restraint and a political resolution.

Apparently, the escalating body count from Cast Lead (2008) to Protective Edge (2014) suggests that Israel is not so restrained. However, Israel was dragged into a ground operation in 2014 not because of the rockets fired from Gaza but because of the urgency to remove the threat of Hamas tunnels. Shifting risk from the ground forces to Gazan civilians, the land operation accounted for most of the civilian deaths. While Israel’s leaders understood the limitations set forth in international law, it was the field command who liberally shaped the fire policy, as my research explains.

Iron Dome up to this point has saved Israeli lives from Gaza rocket attacks, while enabling air campaigns against Palestinian citizens. But the reduced pressure to resolve the conflict with Gaza also means Iron Dome gives Israelis a false sense of security, based on technological success — which isn’t guaranteed forever — rather than political solutions.

Yagil Levy is a professor of public policy and political sociology at the Open University of Israel. He is the co-editor (with David Kuehn) of “Mobilizing Force: Linking Security Threats, Militarization, and Civilian Control” (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2021).

Note: Updated Oct. 9, 2023.