The Rockets’ Red Glare
Thanks to a fence and the Iron Dome, Israel enjoys relative safety.

An Iron Dome battery near Ashdod. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)


Quin Hillyer

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.