How Israel’s Freakish Air Defenses Stop Gaza’s Rockets
One of the architects of Israel’s anti-missile defense strategy talks Iron Dome—and the greatest threat the country faces.
As Hamas and another Gazan militia announced the end of the latest round of fighting with Israel, the Israeli army released a remarkable statistic: Israel sustained a single fatality during a 48-hour period in which 460 rockets and missiles were launched against its southern communities.
In a freakish irony, the only man killed in Israel was Mahmoud Abu Asba, 48, a Palestinian contractor from the West Bank, who had a legal permit to reside in Israel. He lived on the top floor of a building that sustained a direct hit, and was found in the rubble by a passerby, along with two women who were critically injured.
Israel is remarkably successful in keeping its citizens alive even when faced with combat-level salvos of missiles. The achievement is usually attributed to Iron Dome, the air-defense system developed jointly with the United States, which has been battle tested by civilian communities bordering on Gaza.
But in an exclusive September interview with The Daily Beast, Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitz, 51, the outgoing commander of Israel’s Aerial Defense and one of the architects of Israel’s anti-missile defense strategy, said the reality is significantly more complicated: without a disciplined civilian population, he says, trained almost like reserve soldiers, the anti-aircraft system and an anti-ballistic missile system would not be nearly as effective.
The Daily Beast: Is Israel’s air defense different than what you find in Europe or in the United States?
Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitz: I don’t think there’s another country with an air-defense system like ours, but Israel’s situation is unique. There isn’t another country in the world that has faced 14,000 incoming airborne threats in the past 12 years, like we have since the Second Lebanon War [in 2006]. I’m talking about weapons launched from Gaza, the Sinai, Lebanon and Syria.
Has Iron Dome’s success lulled Israelis into a false sense of security?
It’s an issue. The more you succeed, the more the public slides into a feeling of over-confidence and becomes less disciplined and less responsible and people get hurt this way.
This is a real story: I was inspecting some Iron Dome batteries not far from here a few Saturdays ago when I bumped into a family, a Jewish religious family, dad, mom and three kids. There had been an incoming rocket right there only minutes before, and I asked the dad what they were doing there. There was combat nearby. And the the father said, “We trust in the ‘On High,’” and pointed upward. So I said, “Buddy, neither God nor religion is going to save you here,” and he corrected me, repeated “the ‘On High’” and pointed towards the Iron Dome.
That should give you a sense of the dangers posed by this thing.
So how do you contain the dangers?
Broadly speaking, I prefer to think of air defense in terms of the potential it creates. Defenses facilitate much more than they constrain. You see it in Ashdod and in Ashkelon: 200 rockets were launched one day and residents continued in their routines—it may look strange, but it also displays our strength as a society and as an army. Defense gives us this. It permits both civilian and military leadership to take the time to make rational decisions. A strong defense lets you decide when and how you’ll respond to an attack instead of being forced into an immediate retaliation because you have casualties. That’s the link between a nation’s defensive and offensive capabilities. You can choose to act on your own terms.
What is the greatest threat Israel faces?
Iran’s hands are everywhere in our area, comprehensively. The ballistic threat, threats from the air, everything. Iran stands behind every terror organization we confront. Their involvement starts with financial support, and runs through R&D undertaken in Iran, military exercises, weapons testing. They host Hezbollah and Hamas and provide money, knowledge experience, technology, weapons. Look anywhere: Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the militias in Syria, it all emanates from Iran.
Iran is the brain behind everything that is happening here.
So where do you stand on the Iran deal?
I can only tell you that Iran is the most significant threat against the state of Israel. It was so before the agreement and it remained so after the deal, so deal or no deal, I don’t really see a difference.