Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Facing Facts On Gaza And Israel's Iron Dome

Yesterday, Israel's Iron Dome missile system intercepted several incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip.  Media reports indicate that the system intercepted at least 2 rockets in Ofakim, 2 in Netivot, 2 in Ashkelon, and 1 in Beer Sheva.  

Deployed in 2011, the political purpose of Iron Dome is to relieve public pressure on the Israeli government to take military action in the Gaza Strip.  The system was deployed in the wake of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon in which Hezbullah launched thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel's north.  In 2008, rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip also preceded the start of Operation Cast Lead.  When such rockets fall in civilian areas, residents have a 15-second window to find shelter.  Post-traumatic stress disorder in areas which see frequent rocket attacks is well-documented, and the attacks create public pressure on the Israeli government to respond.

The question of how the government should react, however, is far more complicated.  The risks of armed invasion are clear from Israel's last invasion of Gaza in 2008, Operation Cast Lead.  The invasion drew legitimate criticism from the international community for Israel's tactics, including the use of white phosphorous - a weapon which caused severe burns and even death - in Palestinian civilian areas.  

Iron Dome was deployed in part to prevent the inherent risks of another Operation Cast Lead.  But even if Israel chooses not to invade Gaza - this time - there can be little doubt that deployment of the system was not enough to ensure a long-term cease-fire between the two sides.  It was never intended to do so.  The Iron Dome system is one small tool in a large array of military and political strategies.  Yet the Israeli Government has used it as a mainstay of its Gaza policy.  This move is a mistake.  It turns Iron Dome into a bandaid on a festering wound which other Israeli policies needlessly are exacerbating, damaging Iron Dome's efficacy.

Israel's blockade on Gaza includes prohibitions on materials and items with no clear national security purpose.  Five years after the blockade initially was imposed, there has been little observable security benefit from banning these non-military and non-dual-use items.  Internationally, Israel's Foreign Minister has pursued a condescending and disrespectful foreign policy while simultaneously decrying the lack of respect the international community shows his government, including on its policy towards Gaza.  Israel's Prime Minister invites Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table while simultaneously expanding settlement activity and alienating them.  

Supporters of these policies may point to the "rights" of the Israeli government to pursue them, and it may very well be the case that the steps are legitimate policy options.  However, they have done little to advance the security of the border communities in Israel's south, and even less to advance Israel's security overall.  If anything, they have made the situation worse.

Ultimately, Israel will be secure when it expands the short-term outlook of its foreign policy decision making process.  In Israel's early days, the short-term was the only one for which Israel could plan.  It faced the prospect of imminent destruction, attacks on multiple fronts, and wary great power allies.  However, Israel's leadership now has the opportunity to adjust its security posture to a longer or at least more medium-term framework.  Such a reframing doesn't mean Israel should neglect completely the short-term.  However, Israel's inability to broaden the time horizon upon which it makes decisions explains many of its ineffective policies.  On the Gaza border, these are shortcomings for which the Iron Dome system alone cannot be expected reasonably to compensate.

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