Assessing the damage
THE IRON DOME air defense system fires interceptor missiles over Ashkelon on Sunday.. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
As in so many conflicts with no clear winner, Hamas and Israel both declared victory in the latest round of fighting over the weekend.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) boasted on Monday that they were able to overcome the Iron Dome air defense system by developing a new rocket-launching tactic, while the IDF said that upgrades to the Iron Dome helped intercept a large majority of the rockets that were fired, and that its return to targeted killings brought Hamas to its knees.
In the span of less than 48 hours, Hamas and PIJ launched 690 rockets toward Israel, 240 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome. While the large majority landed in open territory and caused no injuries, another 21 hit homes.
Hamas and PIJ attempted to challenge the Iron Dome by launching large barrages at a single point several times during the weekend, and with deadly results – three Israeli civilians were killed. Another was killed after a Kornet antitank missile struck his van.
“The Qassam Brigades, thanks to God, succeeded in overcoming the so-called Iron Dome by adopting the tactic of firing dozens of missiles in one single burst,” said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’s Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades. “The high intensity of fire and the great destructive ability of the missiles that were introduced by the Qassam [Brigades]… succeeded in causing great losses and destruction to the enemy.”
One such barrage between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sunday saw 117 rockets fired toward Ashdod; but with a recent improvement to the Iron Dome, only one rocket got through and struck the city.
It killed 21-year-old Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman while he was running for shelter as the incoming rocket-warning siren wailed.
Nevertheless, the Iron Dome was still able to intercept the other 116 rockets.
Since its first deployment in April 2011 outside Beersheba, the Iron Dome has intercepted roughly 85% of projectiles fired toward Israeli civilian centers, changing the face of battle between Israel and its enemies.
It carries 10 kg. of explosives and can intercept an incoming projectile from four to 70 km. away. It is able to calculate which rockets will land in open areas, and to choose not to intercept them.
Used in several military operations against Hamas, it also successfully intercepted a long-range missile launched by Iranian troops from Syria toward the Hermon mountain resort in Israel’s northern Golan Heights.
In prior Gaza operations, the Iron Dome struggled to intercept short-range mortar shells fired toward Israel. But the Jewish state has been upgrading its multi-layered aerial defense system, and technological upgrades and other improvements have allowed the Iron Dome to intercept short-range rockets and mortars as never before.
In February, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi ordered two additional Iron Dome batteries, which would give Israel a total of 10 such batteries, eight manned by conscript soldiers and two by reservists.
But despite the increase of batteries and the high success rate of interceptions, the military has warned that nothing will give 100% protection.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Eilam, who served as chief scientist and director of Research & Development in the Defense Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post that the “ability of the system is very high” and that “many targets can be intercepted simultaneously,” but “no system is 100%.”
Hamas, he said “was trying to send many missiles, in an unprecedented manner, towards one selected target like Ashdod, because they believed it could allow them to penetrate the system.”
According to Eilam, the military had already learned lessons from the previous round of conflict with groups in the Strip, “and I am sure that R&D and the air force are digesting the lessons of this last round.”
When asked whether Kochavi’s plan to add two more Iron Dome batteries will make for better coverage, Eilam told the Post that “the nature of any defense” is the quantity.
“They can add additional changes to the lessons learned from the last round to add a better coverage,” he said. “The way we are getting ready for the next round – and there will be a next round – we will be more prepared.”
Uzi Rubin, founder and director of the ministry’s Arrow defense program, told the Post that while it was tragic that three Israeli civilians were killed by rockets over the weekend (the fourth being killed by an antitank missile), “they did not obey the instructions of the Home Front Command… It’s not something to do with the Iron Dome.”
According to Rubin, the preeminent Israeli expert on missile defense, the Iron Dome “faced challenges it never did before, and it faced them quite well.”
“There is no 100% defense, never – it’s against the laws of physics,” he said. “Even if you manage to hit every incoming missile, there’s Newton’s Law – even the debris must come down. The debris will still hit, and because of that [it] are still dangerous; it is still lethal. But a rain of small metal fragments is better than a heavy warhead.”
According to Rubin, while there is always the challenge of very short-range projectiles, “there were no casualties in the communities along the Gaza border – the Iron Dome protected them.”
On Tuesday evening, PIJ leader Ziad Nakhala said that the group was “about to launch rockets at Tel Aviv, when the ceasefire [with Israel] stopped it from happening.”
While it wouldn’t be the first time PIJ fired on Tel Aviv, when asked by the Post if the Iron Dome system would stop a barrage on Tel Aviv like the one sent on Ashdod, Rubin said that the system is “designed to intercept barrages. There may be one leak, but the system will defend against it.”
“This is a Wizard War – ours against them – but they are going up against the Start-Up Nation, so be our guest,” Rubin said.
While the latest round of fighting over the weekend saw the Iron Dome intercept shorter-range rockets, the military understands that groups in the coastal enclave are continuously working on their deadly arsenals.
Despite being blockaded by Israel and Egypt for over a decade, terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip have been able to increase their rocket arsenal in both quality and quantity.
While weapons smuggling into the blockaded enclave from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has decreased over the years, groups in the Strip have invested in producing their own locally made rockets.
Hamas and PIJ have carried out tests on an almost regular basis since the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, firing rockets toward the sea in an attempt to increase their range and destructive power.
Hamas has been producing its Qassam rockets since 2001. Then they had a range of four kilometers. Eighteen years later, they are able to strike as far away as Nahariya.
Hamas is believed to have thousands of short-range rockets – such as the Qassam, which can carry a warhead of up to 20 kg. to a distance of 10 kilometers – as well as thousands of medium-range rockets, which can strike 20-55 km. away (such as the popular 122 mm. Soviet Grad rocket, which carries a 20-kg. warhead, or the Chinese Ws-1e and Sejil).
The group also has hundreds of rockets with a range of 80 km. (such as the Iranian M-75, which carries a 10-kg. warhead and can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or the Iranian Fajr with a 90-kg. warhead) and dozens of rockets that have a range of over 100 kilometers (like the R-160 that was launched toward Haifa in Operation Protective Edge some 120 kilometers away from Gaza, or the M-302 Khaibar, which has a range of some 200 kilometers and can carry a 125-170 kg. warhead).
Hamas, which has a fighting force of close to 40,000 men, is also estimated to have thousands more mortars.
According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Hamas had about 11,000 rockets before Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is believed that the group had increased its military capabilities to their pre-2014 strength by 2015. But following the several rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas over the past year – and hundreds of air strikes against Hamas weapons warehouses and other military targets – defense officials estimate that the number of rockets has been reduced by half, to some 5,000-6,000.
PIJ, the second most powerful group in the Strip, was left relatively unscathed by Israeli air strikes until this past weekend, and is therefore estimated to have 8,000 rockets (more than Hamas) and a fighting force of 9,000 men, with another 6,000 fighters.
But most of PIJ’s rockets are more primitive than those of Hamas and have a shorter range. Nevertheless, according to PIJ, over the weekend the group launched its new short-range Badr-3 rocket, which has a 250-kilogram warhead, toward Ashkelon.
The IDF has been concerned about heavy mortars that could carry 150-200-kilogram warheads, which would inflict heavy damage on the Israeli home front. In November, the group published a video showing such a rocket that they had fired toward Ashkelon, which destroyed a home and killed one man.
With the next round of fighting just around the bend, both sides are rushing to stay one step ahead of the other – one side with its deadly rockets, the other with its defensive missile system.
It’s a race that will never stop.•