The Rockets’ Red Glare

by Quin Hillyer
Thanks to a fence and the Iron Dome, Israel enjoys relative safety.

Despite enduring thousands of Hamas rockets in the past ten weeks, the whole of Israel is far safer now than it was a decade ago, and safer than many American cities. Indeed, two initiatives long favored by American conservatives, namely missile defense and a border fence, have made the current unpleasantness with Hamas little more than an unfortunate distraction from the true existential threat, which is Iranian nukes.

Since the Hamas attacks began June 13, the rockets from Gaza have killed seven people in all of Israel while wounding only a few dozen more. An August 19–20 tour of both the fence and of an Iron Dome missile-defense installment, guided by top retired Israeli military officials, amply demonstrated why Israeli civilians and tourists feel comparatively safe amid so many terrorist attacks.

One of those rockets set off sirens in Jerusalem just before midnight on Tuesday, August 19, while I was there. Everybody in my hotel seemed to take the attack seriously, by dutifully gathering in the designated safe zone — but, remarkably, the only person who showed fear rather than mere annoyance was a three-year-old scared by the noise. Perhaps the confidence can be attributed to some compelling numbers.

The statistics were supplied by retired Israeli Colonel Danny Tirzia, a member of the 16-member Israeli delegation at President Clinton’s failed Camp David meeting in the year 2000 who later was tasked with designing and overseeing construction of Israel’s 451-mile-long security barrier. From 2000 through 2006, he said, Israel suffered more than 3,000 terrorist attacks (apart from rockets) within its borders, with 1,629 fatalities. Post-fence, from 2007 until today, only 25 such attacks (not counting Gazan rockets) have occurred, with only 18 deaths.

The big difference is the fence, which snakes in a bewilderingly complicated route along Israel’s border with the Palestinian Authority–controlled West Bank. Its precise route and design was determined, Tirzia said, by the oft-competing demands of topography, the political allegiances of affected communities, the desire to provide for cross-border employment in some areas, and the location of sites of religious or other historic significance. (The employment numbers might surprise Americans: Each day, some 70,000 Palestinians are allowed to cross into Israeli territory for their jobs, through security checkpoints that take just 20 minutes to traverse.)

Less than 10 percent of the barrier is a solid wall; the rest is a chain-link fence loaded with sensors and video surveillance, with military personnel deployed in such fashion as to be able to reach just about any breach in less than ten minutes. The whole thing was constructed at the cost of 11 billion shekels — the equivalent of about $3.5 billion, a surprisingly affordable price by American standards.

Every single night, Tirzia said, somewhere between five and 20 would-be terrorists are caught attempting to breach the barrier. Obviously, hatred from the Palestinian side runs deep. Yet, said Tirzia, this is no Berlin Wall, intended as a permanent feature of oppression. It keeps killers out, rather than imprisoning a beleaguered people inside. “I want to be the one,” he said, with palpable earnestness, “to take the first stone off the wall in Jerusalem,” en route to an orderly dismantlement of the whole barrier system, if a desired peace is ever achieved.

The second major security advance is the suddenly famous Iron Dome — an Israeli-designed system that is generations more advanced, technologically, than the American Patriot missiles in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm. Numerous radar installations feed data back to a center in Tel Aviv. When rockets are detected, the system can assess their trajectory in less than five seconds, determine whether they will land on human habitations or instead just in empty fields, and (without any human input) allow the latter rockets to continue unmolested while firing interceptor missiles at the ones that appear more dangerous to human life and limb. (Two interceptors, at a cost of $50,000 each, are fired at each incoming rocket, so if the first one misses, the second might find success.)

Those interceptors are based at nine installations throughout the country, each looking something like a large, angled, wooden planter, except with small metal tubes visible where vegetation would be. Each planter/silo contains up to 16 interceptor missiles; the installation is guarded, at least visibly, by a single soldier overlooking the site.

Israeli officials say that more than 90 percent of the interceptors successfully destroy their targets. Israeli press reported that Iron Dome did, for example, destroy the missile that set off the siren in Jerusalem while I was there. Most Hamas rockets have ranges far short of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, so the main targets are cities nearer Gaza, such as Ashkelon or Beersheba, or villages nearby. The Iron Dome installation we visited near Ashkelon, about four hours before Hamas broke the cease-fire last week, presumably has been quite busy since we left it. The number of lives saved, quite obviously, has been substantial.

“Any soul is a God-given soul, and if you save one soul, you save the world,” retired Brigadier General Israel “Relik” Shafir said to us, citing Jewish tradition. Shafir was the expert who gave the arm’s-length (about 80 yards away) “tour” of Ashkelon’s Iron Dome site to my delegation. (The delegation was organized by former U.S. senator Rick Santorum and co-sponsored by Santorum’s Patriot Voices organization and by Christians United for Israel.)

Worth noting, Shafir said, was that “Iron Dome has saved more Palestinian lives than Israeli lives.” Why? Because, by so dramatically reducing Israeli casualties, it has provided space to the Israeli government to more carefully calibrate and target its responses, rather than being compelled to do more massive and more indiscriminate preventative strikes on Gaza in order to protect the Israeli population. (Somewhat perversely, at least one distinguished observer has written that this very success is an argument against Iron Dome, because it keeps Israel from doing more to destroy Hamas entirely.)

There is a “cultural imperative,” Shafir said, to strike at and eliminate anyone who kills Jews and Israelis. But Israel strives mightily to limit casualties to the lowest numbers possible — and Iron Dome is a great asset toward that end.

The fence and Iron Dome, combined with a vibrant civil society and a warm and welcoming Israeli public that universally seems to love Americans, make Israel a safe and enjoyable place to visit. On the other hand, just because Israel is largely thwarting Hamas’s evil designs does not mean that Israelis aren’t at risk and aren’t feeling the strain from the constant barrage of rockets. (Note: Hamas now has rejected or directly violated eleven cease-fire proposals or agreements, all of which Israel accepted and abided by.) For one thing, the publicity about the rocket fire has played havoc with Israel’s usual tourist economy. Tourism in the past two months is down a whopping 90 percent. Tragically, our delegation had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre almost entirely to ourselves; it was not filled with its usual throngs of pilgrims.

More important in the long run, the potentially deadly unpleasantness with Hamas has almost completely distracted attention from Iran’s continuing, devastatingly dangerous efforts to develop deliverable nuclear weapons. Again and again during last week’s trip, the officials who briefed us volunteered the same opinion, completely unbidden, with absolute certainty — namely, that Iran is benefitting substantially from the Hamas diversion, and that the threat Iran poses is dire.

Noted diplomat Dore Gold stressed this reality to us. So did Shafir. So did respected military analyst Major (Reserve) Elliott Chodoff. So, over a casual dinner, did a major Israeli venture capitalist (who will remain nameless) with deep ties to the United States. And so did very high-level government officials who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. The message from each was the same: Iran is frighteningly close to nuclear-weapons capability and frighteningly likely to use it. The Obama administration, meanwhile, diddles around with Iran and even talks about a possible “strategic partnership” with Iran in responding to developments in Iraq.

As Gold explained, Iran’s development of high-speed centrifuges allows it to enrich uranium to weapons grade much more rapidly than ever before. Its development of missiles makes those nukes deliverable. And its stated desire to wipe Israel off the map is not only rhetoric but a central dogma of its murderous ideology.

Santorum, who has been pointing to Iran as the biggest strategic threat to the United States for the better part of a decade (even as American forces struggled, pre-surge, in Iraq), neither invited any of the comments from these Israeli experts nor engaged in any “I-toldja-so” moments. But, he told me, Iran’s threat to the United States, not just to Israel, is significant. For the ayatollahs, Israel is merely the “Little Satan” while America is the “Great Satan” who is Iran’s ultimate target.

“The only reason to enrich uranium to the level they want is to make nuclear bombs,” he says. “The only purpose of the missiles they are building is to deliver a nuclear weapon. . . . The rise of a radical Islamic state with the potential, in a nuclear Iran, of nuclear asymmetric warfare, is something incomprehensible to most Americans. Islamic jihadists — unlike, for example, the old Soviet Union — think they have very little to lose in a nuclear exchange. And they are continuing to develop the capability to do this while [the Obama administration] continues to ‘negotiate’ with them, denying to ourselves their clear intention for destroying both Israel and us.”

My visit to Israel last week confirmed that Iran and its fellow jihadists have good reason to see Israel and the United States in the same light. Israelis and Americans share the same humane, Western values. We both value freedom and human rights. We both embrace modern, market economics and its inherently creative but sometimes unsettling potential for change. We both place tremendous value on the importance of individual human lives, rejecting the idea that individuals are disposable pawns of a bloodthirsty god.

Israel is an oasis in a desert — in the physical, topographical sense but also metaphorically. It’s an oasis of reason, human decency, and justice appropriately grounded in mercy. Those are virtues that now might need to be protected by a Dome and a fence, but that in the fullness of time must not be restrained.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.