An Iron Roadblock

by David Knoll on December 14, 2012

The Iron Dome missile defense system is being touted as the real winner of the recent fight between Gaza and Israel. Some Israeli officials cite the anti-projectile platform as the reason the Israeli Defense Forces did not invade the Gaza Strip this past November. Over the course of the eight-day shootout, Iron Dome hit over 80% of Palestinian rockets that it targeted, limiting Israeli casualties despite advances in the range and sophistication of the Palestinian arsenal. A system that protects Israeli civilians and prevents the need for casualty-heavy ground invasions is a positive development in many ways. Unfortunately, in the long-term it also threatens to further stall progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

It is paradoxical that this security system presents a long-term security danger to Israel. But Iron Dome, combined with the security barrier that encloses the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, shields Israel from the Palestinian problem. Israelis can ignore the violence of the conflict in a way that the Palestinians cannot. If Israelis are insulated from the conflict, there will continue to be insufficient public pressure on the leadership to make the kind of painful concessions necessary to reach a final agreement. Only a final political accord with the Palestinians will guarantee Israel the internal security that has eluded it for sixty-four years. And, if the last fifteen years have any lesson to teach, it is that the longer the conflict endures, the more elusive a final peace becomes.

The need for the Iron Dome started with the erection of security barriers, first in Gaza and now in the West Bank, which separate the two areas from Israel. Begun in 1994, the Gaza wall is all-inclusive and includes every conceivable (and some inconceivable) bell and whistle, from electronic sensors to night vision cameras to remote control automatic guns. The Gaza barrier even extends into the Mediterranean Sea: an underwater wall, embedded into the sea floor and extending above the surface, prevents seaborne attack. Under President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians also got in the game, building an underground wall to block Sinai and Gazan tunnelers from smuggling illicit goods and weapons into the Strip.

The Palestinians began firing rockets and mortars from Gaza because the wall made infiltration-based attacks unworkable. The projectiles are a reaction to the effectiveness of the security barrier. The Iron Dome missile defense system can be seen as a vertical extension of that security barrier—a wall in the sky. And as a tactical tool, Iron Dome has been a resounding success. Iron Dome interceptor missiles hit 421 rockets fired from Gaza in mid-November, which puts its success rate at eighty to ninety percent, better than many expected. The computer-driven system is efficient, targeting only rockets headed for populated areas and ignoring others.

Hit rate non-withstanding, Iron Dome has the potential to cause strategic failure. With Iron Dome and the Gaza security barrier in place, there is nothing to push Israeli politicians toward negotiations and eventual peace. If anything, Israeli leaders took the wrong lessons from the most recent clash with Gaza: they don’t see Iron Dome as the armor that will allow them to engage in difficult negotiations with the Palestinians, but rather the screen that allows them to ignore the problem.

This is not a problem that can be ignored indefinitely. Despite the seemingly insurmountable barriers Israel has erected to thwart Palestinian terror groups, there will be future attacks on Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip. There is no perfect defense system, no matter how lavishly technology and money are applied. Just ask the Trojans about their city walls or the French about their Maginot Line.

The Palestinian response to Israeli barriers won’t necessarily be military in nature. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas’s recent political victory at the United Nations in upgrading Palestine to a “non-member observer state” is a case in point. While the Fatah leader is also behind a wall in the West Bank, he chooses to draw attention to his cause not with rockets, but words. Israeli leadership might not like the outcome of the vote, but surely they would prefer diplomatic fighting over lethal violence.

Should Israel turn off the Iron Dome to improve the prospects of peace? Of course not. Israel should do everything possible to protect its people—any government would. However, Israel’s leaders should use this moment of military supremacy to make a concerted effort toward peace. Many argue that Israel should not negotiate until it can guarantee the safety of its people. That moment has arrived. If Israel waits much longer, the terror groups will once again figure out a way to make life miserable for Israelis, and peace will become ever more distant.

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