There has been considerable debate over who “won” the recent fighting in and around Gaza, though the question itself might lack relevancy as both sides have largely returned to the status quo ante. Hamas has indeed proven itself capable of resisting Israel and has gained the respect of its Arab neighbors while its political opponent Fatah has again looked weak and vacillating. That many of the frequently homemade Gazan rockets were able to penetrate Israeli defenses and even strike near Tel Aviv is also being promoted by some as a game changer, but in reality the actual impact was more psychological than lethal. Israel blinked because it had become clear that there were no real military targets remaining in Gaza and only civilians, many of them children, were being killed. Continuing the air assault or initiating a ground invasion would only lead to a major public relations victory for the Palestinians in the court of world opinion.
Pundits taking their cue directly from the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not necessarily agree, quickly claiming that Israel had won because, suffering minor losses itself of only six killed it inflicted serious damage on the Gazan infrastructure while killing 163 Palestinian “terrorists.” Israeli government sources maintain that “all objectives were reached,” presumably meaning that the ability of the Gazans to continue to fire homemade rockets at Israel had been seriously degraded, which may or may not be true. On a political level, Netanyahu’s tough response to the Gazans had been originally regarded as a vote winner in the lead up to January elections, a consideration that certainly entered into his willingness to go to war, though many Israelis are now dismayed that he did not go far enough.
But stopping the rockets and a display of military prowess before an election might not have been the actual objectives. More ominously, some media both in Israel and the US have described the timing and the nature of the Gaza offensive as a test run for an attack on Iran. If that was the true motivation behind the Israeli attack, it means that a war may have been started just to test Israel’s missile defense system under realistic conditions. If so, “Operation Pillar of Defense” would be comparable to the Germans and Italians using Spanish “live targets” to evaluate the performance of their new weapons in 1937.
Other reports from Israel and also some analysis of the fighting by American experts reveal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have considered his country’s ability to intercept many rockets from Gaza as a sign that Iranian missiles, should he choose to attack that country, can be similarly defended against, bolstering his government’s absurd claims that a war with Iran would not kill more than 500 Israelis. The Israeli government has insisted that between 84% and 90% of incoming rockets from Gaza were intercepted, but a Ministry of Defense account on November 21 says otherwise: “Since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, the army says that 1,382 rockets fired from Gaza have struck Israel, with another 389 intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Of that number, 138 rockets hit Israel on Tuesday, killing the two Israelis. Another 51 were intercepted by Iron Dome, the military said.” Other estimates suggest the 70% of Gazan missiles and rockets landed in Israel without being intercepted.
The Israeli government response to those numbers has been to claim that most of the hits were on parts of the country not protected by Iron Dome. It has promised to accelerate plans to cover more of the country beyond the current configurations along the border with Lebanon as well as surrounding the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Iron Dome is largely funded by the United States even though Israel is working assiduously to market it internationally to nations including South Korea. The cease fire agreed to last week was sweetened by an offer from President Barack Obama to have the US taxpayer cover the costs for still more Iron Dome.
Israel’s missile defenses might, in fact, be of questionable value. Consider for a moment the economics of Iron Dome. There are currently five operational units that are towed to the sites where are they deployed. They have cost $50 million each. Israel eventually wants to deploy thirteen of them, all paid for by the US taxpayer. In the recent fighting, the units fired an estimated $25-30 million worth of anti-missile missiles, with an estimated per unit cost of $50,000. The “onslaught” from Gaza was insignificant compared to what would be coming Israel’s way from south Lebanon and Iran if a major war were to break out. Iran has modern ballistic and cruise missiles some of which might have enough range to reach Israel while Hezbollah in Lebanon also has considerable capabilities, including drones for targeting inside Israel, and an arsenal sometimes estimated to include more than 40,000 missiles of various types. The Gazan weapons were largely homemade sometimes using Iranian avionic parts smuggled in, even to include the one copy of an Iranian Fajr-5 missile that was used and successfully penetrated Tel Aviv’s airspace to destroy a building. The missiles more commonly launched, a modified Qassam, lack sophistication but cost about $100 to construct. In a war of attrition against its neighbors, Israel would be attacked from all sides by wave after wave of missiles and rockets that would overwhelm the defenses and it would quickly go through its own stock of defensive missiles costing $50,000 a pop to engage the much cheaper weapons that would be incoming. It is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier” describing how a highly educated British officer might get picked off by an illiterate Afghan peasant “blessed with perfect sight” wielding an ancient musket — “The odds are on the cheaper man.”
And there is also another larger issue which goes beyond the viability of Iron Dome, that of yet another possible war crime being committed by the Israeli government. The Nuremberg Trials established that initiating a war of aggression is the ultimate war crime in that all other evils spring from it. Israel argues that it punished the Palestinians in response to rocket attacks on southern Israel coming out of Gaza over the past year. But the largely homemade rockets did little damage to Israel and killed no one. Many observers believe that most of the rockets were rogue operations not condoned by Hamas carried out in response to Tel Aviv’s strangling of the Gazan economy and its deliberate policy of starving the Palestinian population. One has to assume that Israel knew it was not seriously threatened and was picking the time and place to obtain its revenge based on other, mostly political, considerations. It targeted and then assassinated the Hamas security chief Ahmed al-Jabari, who reportedly had come up with a plan for a permanent truce with Israel. Al-Jabari’s death put paid to any peace efforts and served as a deliberate provocation leading to Palestinian retaliation and a plausible casus belli, suggesting that it was a staged event. If the war was initiated just to test a missile defense system and to prepare the Israeli people for a possible future conflict it is beyond outrageous. Not only was Netanyahu preparing to kill largely defenseless Palestinians, he was also putting his own countrymen at risk and again wittingly involving the United States as an accomplice in his own reckless behavior. Israel and its friends are fond of saying that there is a madman loose in the Middle East when they refer to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but in truth there is only one madman who is assiduously seeking war and more war and that is Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.