The last summer war between Israel and Hezbollah exposed the Jewish State’s capabilities to defend itself against short-range rockets. To deal with the emergent situation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently approved the development of a new anti-missile system named ‘Iron-Dome.’
The system however is a technological response to a threat that is largely embedded in politics. Leaving the scientific and technological strengths and weaknesses of the system vis-à-vis specific threat aside, whether the system provides Israel the overall objective of strengthening its security, is a question worth pondering.
Drawing their conclusions from geographical and politico-historical realities, Israel’s founders and successive leadership chose hegemonic stability as a model to ensure the survival and security of their country.
Their first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said: “The basic condition for achieving peace between us and the Arabs is by creating conditions which will remove from the hearts of our neighbors the dream that Israel can be annihilated.
Thus throughout its history, Israel mainly focused its energies on achieving an offensive capability to preempt its enemies. And it served the purpose. However with the arrival of hi-tech guerrilla forces on the Middle Eastern scene, the utility of pre-emption doctrine is fast receding.
Latest concern for the security of Israel is a multi-altitude threat: ballistic missiles, medium range missiles and short-range rockets. Israel has put in a lot of resources and efforts to neutralize the ballistic missile threat and the Patriot and Arrow systems do provide some neutralizing potential against them.
However the vulnerability against the medium range missiles and particularly against the short-range rockets has now developed as a nightmare for the Israeli defense planners.
Indeed, Israel sought an opportunity in the soldier kidnapping by Hezbollah last year. It boosted the provocation into war with an objective of dismantling Hezbollah infrastructure in the areas adjacent to the Israeli borders to secure it from rocket attacks.
But it could not achieve its objective.
Through out the conflict, Hezbollah maintained its ability to shower over a hundred rockets per day on average into Israel; that was enough to put the most powerful Middle Eastern military into humiliating position. The overall reported damage to Israel, mainly by these short-range rockets, was the killing of 117 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) personnel along with 39 civilians, which is negligible given the duration of war.
But if compared to Iraq’s Scud attacks against Israel in 1991, the damage was extremely high. To recall, Scud attacks in 1991 did not cause any direct Israeli casualty; a few deaths however were reported because of inefficient use of gas masks and heart attack.
Relatively high number of deaths in 2006 rocket-rain exposed the blind corner in the Israeli defenses. During the conflict, around 4,000 rockets were fired into Israel. The IDF’s precision targeting of the communication infrastructure in Lebanon to disrupt the supplies for Hezbollah could not produce any stress on the group, as was evident in the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence’s joint assessment three weeks into the conflict.
Neither the will nor the capability of Hezbollah was impaired by Israeli punitive actions.
The rocket threat does not originate only from the neighbors across the Blue Line; it equally comes from the Gaza Strip, from where Hamas has also entered into ‘the projectile age.’ Key Israeli industrial facilities, including the major port of Ashdod and the new desalination plant at Ashkelon, are also in the range of the home-made Qassam rockets.
To fix the problem, Israel has decided to develop an-anti rocket system to undo the Hezbollah-Hamas rocket advantage. The system named as ‘Iron-Dome’ to be developed by Israeli state-owned Rafael is meant to secure Israel against Katyusha and Qassam rockets, launched from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, and the Gaza Strip.
To deal with the medium range missiles threat, Israel has already awarded a contract in May 2006, jointly to Rafael and Raytheon to design a system, named ‘Magic Wand,’ that could intercept incoming missiles and rockets fired from up to a range of 280 kilometers.
The advent of projectile-based threats has compelled Israel for the first time to relocate its energies from offensive to defensive capabilities.
On the technological front Israel is making all efforts to ensure its security. To tackle multi-directional threats, coming from multi-altitudes, it is responding with the development and deployment of multi-layered defenses of Arrow/Patriot, Magic Wand and now Iron Dome.
But the question remains whether these systems would provide reliable and durable security against the ingenuity of its ‘lesser’ enemies.
Would the Iron Dome in conjunction with other hi-tech systems avert doom, particularly in an era where globalization of technologies and mushrooming of lesser-but-lethal threats has put even the sole super power in trouble against the similar kind of enemies?
To ensure greater security Israel may have to find political answers to the challenge. If treaties could be signed by Israel with Egypt, PLO and Jordan, the remaining challenges to its security may also be neutralized by employing political means with sincerity to eradicate the causes that generate hatred against it.
Technological responses alone, devoid of political settlement, would only provoke change of strategies and innovative responses to defeat the specific systems.
Mustansar Billahis an Islamabad-based researcher on security issues, with particular interest in the issues of terrorism and low-key/protracted conflicts. He wrote this piece for The Daily Star Egypt. He may be reached at email@example.com.