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January 30, 2015

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The ‘rock star’ missile

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Iron Dome, Israel’s rocket defense system, fundamentally altered the dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. The system intercepted about 90 percent of the thousand or so missiles launched by Hamas. Israelis, for the most part, survived the onslaught, certainly in comparison to the casualty toll among Palestinians. But as the ceasefire negotiated on Wednesday takes hold, it’s important not to overstate the system’s role in taming the crisis: Iron Dome reduced tensions by preventing civilian deaths, but it didn’t thwart Hamas’s aims. It may have provided a window for negotiations, but the negotiators did all the work themselves.

Nonetheless, Iron Dome has been described in various media reports as the “break-out star” and the “game changer” in this conflict. Idan Yahya, a 22-year-old gunner with the Israeli Air Defense Wing, is being lionized as a Hollywood-style hero, with stories about how he grew up playing the video game Warcraft and now holds the title for striking down the most Hamas rockets.

Iron Dome, to be clear, is a weapon. Israel began embracing the notion of an air-defense system to protect civilian areas from missiles after its 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Its success is not debatable, but its legacy is. The fascination with Iron Dome risks elevating a tactic into a strategy. Iron Dome is not a weapon of war or, as many Israelis argue, a weapon of peace. It is merely a weapon of delay. It buys time for the inevitable negotiations.

For Hamas, the elected Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip, Iron Dome’s success was less of a frustration than it might have seemed. Hamas did not launch missiles solely to kill Israelis. If that were its objective, then it failed. Rather, its goal was to showcase Hamas’s strength against the Israeli foe; Iron Dome may have decreased the number of civilian casualties, but it didn’t decrease the number of rockets Hamas launched. Hamas is in a political struggle with the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which was essentially sidelined by all parties — including the United States and Israel — at the Gaza peace talks in Cairo.

Hamas’s rocket launches, therefore, were not just about killing Israelis; they were about enhancing Hamas’s standing in a divided Palestinian leadership. For Hamas, taking action was an end in itself. Iron Dome may have prevented the ultimate blows to Israel, but it didn’t diminish Hamas’s ability to show its strength.

For Israel, the chorus of cheers about Iron Dome risk muting the smart strategic reason why it was put in place: to ensure that a huge number of Israeli fatalities did not force the government’s hand in launching a land war in Gaza. The shield provided the political space for a conservative leadership, and a divided nation, to consider alternatives to an invasion that would have surely inflamed Palestinian and Arab sentiment.

For the United States, Iron Dome shouldn’t mask the reality that a negotiated settlement of the underlying issues that divide the Israeli and Palestinian people is the only lasting solution. This week proved, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew from Asia to the Middle East to handle the crisis, that America will never be able to pivot from the Palestinian conflict, as long as it rages.

Unfortunately, some of Israel’s supporters in Congress are drawing the wrong lessons from Iron Dome’s success, calling for more U.S. military aid to expand the missile shield rather than addressing the untenable situation on the ground.

Even worse, some American hawks are suggesting that the dome is proof of the need for more missile-defense programs for the East Coast of the United States. Iron Dome’s fans in America are underestimating the vast technological differences between intercepting small rockets from an enemy a few miles away and trying to shoot down ballistic missiles that come from hundreds of miles away at 10 times the speed. The most sophisticated inter-continental missiles even come embedded with technological countermeasures to thwart any defense shield. Iron Dome is not a video game to be shared among friends.

Indeed, Iron Dome is not a game at all. It also is not a solution. The best thing it did was to buy all the parties some time. It cannot bring them lasting peace. They still have to do that themselves.

Juliette Kayyem is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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  1. The Gaza/Hamas-Israeli truce is tenuous at best. Yes, it buys more time for Hamas to rebuild and launch another strike against Israel. Just as this recent assault on Israel showed that rocketry, provided by Iran and smuggled into Gaza, can reach 50 percent of the population of Israel in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hamas' stated mission is the annihilation of Israel and its poeple. With that as a goal, peace is never a lasting outcome. Just a temporary lull to regroup and attack.