JERUSALEM, 10 July-2014,For the moment at least, the hostilities between Israel and Gaza are partly a fight between rockets and interceptors – between the varied and improved arsenal of rockets possessed by Hamas and its allies, like Islamic Jihad, and the antimissile systems of Israel.
If Hamas and Islamic Jihad are proud of their steady technical achievements in building homegrown versions of rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv and even the outskirts of Jerusalem, the Israelis consider their Iron Dome antimissile system a battlefield-altering success, helping to protect the home front and buy time for either negotiations or a ground operation.
A key part of the Israeli military strategy is air power, to be sure, with frequent strikes on Gaza from jet fighters and drones, aimed at Hamas officials, headquarters, rocket factories, launchers and arms stores, the Israeli army says. However well-targeted the strikes, there is almost always collateral damage. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 40 Palestinians in crowded Gaza are reported to have died so far since Monday night, some of them youngsters and not all of them combatants. No Israelis have been killed.
The Israeli intent, as described by military officials, is to degrade the capacity and will of Hamas and its allies to continue firing rockets, and to diminish the stock of rockets the Gazans currently possess.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday that more than 200 rockets fired from Gaza had hit Israel, while 53 had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system.
That reach has marked a new level in this round of hostilities compared with those in November 2012. But more important, the Israelis say, is the quantity of more sophisticated rockets the Gazans have been able to attain through manufacture and smuggling, especially before the military crackdown in Egypt a year ago that overthrew the elected president there, Mohamed Morsi, who was considered an ally of Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad have a range of rocketry now, from the small and relatively inaccurate 122-millimeter rockets of the Grad family, which have short ranges of 12 to 25 miles, to some Syrian-manufactured M-302 rockets, which have a range of about 100 miles, like the one that hit Hadera. But Hamas also has accrued a large stock of Iranian Fajr-5 rockets and a locally made version that Hamas calls the M-75 (for a range of 75 kilometers). These 333-millimeter rockets have a range of about 50 miles, covering central Israel.
Only in March, Israeli forces intercepted a ship in the southern Red Sea, 1,000 miles from Israel, that contained a shipment of M-302s that the Israelis said had been intended for their militant adversaries in Gaza. The Israelis blamed Iran, which supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for the shipment.
Gen. Itay Brun, head of the Military Intelligence Analysis and Production Unit of the Israel Defense Forces, said in June that the technical expertise in Gaza to manufacture the medium-range rockets also came from Iran. He estimated that Hamas’s stock of rockets had about doubled since November 2012, the last time Israel and Hamas engaged in prolonged hostilities, and had been improved qualitatively, with more longer-range rockets.
According to General Brun, Hamas has several hundred rockets with ranges of up to about 50 miles, which can reach the outskirts of Jerusalem; several thousand rockets with ranges up to 25 miles, many made in China, which can reach Beersheba, Ashdod and other parts of southern Israel; and several thousand rockets with ranges of 12 miles, which can reach the closer Israeli populations in Sderot and Ashkelon.
The Iron Dome system is intended to intercept these ballistic missiles – not more sophisticated cruise missiles, which the Gaza militants are not believed to possess – before they reach populated areas. Guided by computers and sensors, the interceptors are supposed to be fired only when population centers are in danger; they fire explosive metal pieces in proximity to the rocket to destroy the warhead. Two interceptors are fired toward each rocket that approaches a significant target.
The Israeli army has said that the system intercepted about 27 percent of all the rockets fired between Monday night and midday Wednesday.
The United States has been instrumental in helping to fund the development of Iron Dome and has proprietary access to the technology. Israel has said that the system has a near 90 percent success rate in intercepting the missiles it is meant to thwart.
Some outside analysts have said they consider such claims to be exaggerated, in part because some missiles are simply diverted off their course to land elsewhere and the warheads are not destroyed. Israeli officials dismiss some of the criticism as motivated by competitors, but whatever the actual success figures, the system has clearly protected many Israeli towns and cities and has helped somewhat to calm the nerves of Israeli civilians.
Still, most open-air activities with large numbers of people have been banned by the army, including in Jerusalem, and numerous cultural events and street fairs have been canceled.
The civilians of Gaza, of course, among whom Hamas operates, live in a different reality.
Israel currently has seven Iron Dome batteries, which cost $55 million each; each interceptor costs about $100,000, officials say.
Israel has also opened a fourth assembly line for the Iron Dome batteries, this one in the United States, said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and now a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, who praised Iron Dome as “the first ABM system to work in combat and actually work.”
The system also “changes the calculus on the battlefield,” Mr. Oren said. “It buys you time to work out a cease-fire, but also can prevent a clear victory – it depends on who has greater stocks of rockets or interceptors.”
There is a cost-benefit debate, Mr. Oren said. A Hamas rocket is inexpensive, whether it is made locally or smuggled “duty-free,” he said. But the savings to civilian property and the economy must be set against the cost of the system, he said.