Commuters on Route 4, driving toward the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod on November 12, were shocked by an explosion, a rocket impact next to a major intersection. Had it fallen on a car or one of the many trucks plying the route, there would have been deaths, and the road would have been closed. Instead, police and Israeli Home Front Command units came and cordoned off the sidewalk, and drivers went about their day. Twenty-five miles south of where the rocket landed, other rocket teams from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iranian-backed terrorist group, were preparing to fire more than 400 rockets at Israel during a brief flare-up in fighting. Most of them would be intercepted by Israel’s high-tech air defense.
The ability of millions of Israelis to mostly go about their day while Israel’s air force carries out precision air strikes nearby is due to Israel’s latest achievements in fighting war. It also comes with questions about whether Israel is being effective and what this latest revolution in military affairs means in the long term.
A week after the November 12 clashes, they had faded into the background, one day of battle among dozens since March 2018, when Hamas launched a series of protests called the Great Return March. More than 2,000 rockets have been fired, many of them in short spurts. Several times, Israel almost launched a major ground operation. But it has held back. Its Iron Dome air-defense system, which looks like a giant green pack of cigarettes mounted on a truck, intercepted 90 percent of the rockets in the battle with Islamic Jihad. The sophisticated system, developed with U.S. support, not only targets incoming projectiles by firing a missile at them; it even calculates precisely where the threat might hit and works accordingly with a separate system of sirens that warn Israelis to seek shelter.
As in almost every attack since Israel pulled its forces from Gaza in 2005, I went down to the border. The area has changed dramatically over the years. In 2008, before Operation Cast Lead, areas of Sderot, a border town, were dilapidated and depressing. Under fire, without any protection, the people were traumatized. Now there are new parks and shopping centers. Israel didn’t go to war on November 12 because it didn’t need to, and it sees diminishing returns in entering Gaza and getting bogged down in fighting. It also knows that civilian casualties would result. In Cast Lead, around 1,400 Palestinians were killed; in the Gaza war in 2014, more than 2,400, according to estimates. Gaza is densely populated; imagine trying to fight a war in Manhattan. Civilians will suffer.
However, the volume of rocket fire from Gaza in the past year and the extent of Israeli airstrikes are as large as in previous wars. In July 2018, Israel struck 40 targets in what it said were the largest strikes since the 2014 war. In November 2018, around 500 rockets were fired. In response, Israel struck 160 targets that month. In May 2019, more than 600 rockets were fired at Israel. In the recent battle with Islamic Jihad, Israel hit around 20 PIJ targets. A mistaken airstrike also killed eight civilians from one Palestinian family.
Israel dubbed its recent operation “Black Belt” and aimed it at deterring PIJ, which poses a challenge for Israel if there is also conflict with Hezbollah in the north. Delivering a blow to the organization by killing a senior commander to “stabilize the situation” is what Jerusalem hoped to achieve. “Our assessment shows we dealt a significant blow to PIJ’s capabilities,” an IDF spokesman said in a press briefing.
This is Israel’s new way of war. It mirrors a type of war that most advanced Western countries, particularly the United States, now fight. It involves precision airstrikes or special forces and complex intelligence-gathering through the use of satellites, cyber technology, and other sources. Gone are the days of heavy armor, of Israel’s Moshe Dayan or America’s George Patton and all that. This “revolution in military affairs” that was unveiled in the early 1990s mandates the use of technology and now involves “asymmetry,” which basically means that on one side you have an F-35 and on the other you have a guy with an AK-47. It’s not simple in reality, because groups such as Islamic Jihad have developed long-range rockets, with Iran’s backing.
Nevertheless, in the overall picture, Israel has reached extreme precision in its airstrikes, putting a missile in a bedroom rather than taking out a whole house. Air defense, including Iron Dome and other systems such as the U.S.-made Patriot, enable Jerusalem to avoid a ground war and to focus on the Iranian threat. This is a major revolution for Israel. Thirteen years ago the country was dragged into a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon and suffered many early setbacks on the ground. That war taught Israel that its decade and a half of fighting Palestinian terror in the West Bank and Gaza had degraded the army’s ability to engage in a larger complex conflict.
Now Israel prefers to prepare for the larger conflict with Iranian-backed groups while managing the conflict in Gaza and carrying out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets that are largely shrouded in secrecy. These precise strikes, such as one on a Hezbollah “killer drone” team in August, could lead to a larger conflict. As it faces a variety of threats, from Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups, Israel will have to use its air defense against major rocket threats, relying on the tactics it honed in the precision strikes. New technologies enabled Israel to refrain from major conflicts with the Palestinians. In the next war, they will be tested on a much larger scale, on multiple fronts.