I was in Jerusalem as a tourist on Thursday afternoon when Iron Dome went into action in the city for the first time. An alarm sounded. We pulled our rental car to the side of the road, jumped out, and lay flat on the ground in a patch of dirt and stones next to the central bus station. People were prostrating themselves all across what passes in Jerusalem for a small park. Others continued to stand. Within a minute we heard muffled booms. We looked up and saw small, wispy clouds in the blue sky—the aftermath of the detonations. Threat over. Someone standing near me called it a miracle.
The health ministry in Gaza on Friday reported that Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza had killed more than 100 Palestinians, with more than 500 injured. By contrast, as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin on Friday evening, just one Israeli had died from Hamas’s rocket attacks—an elderly woman in Haifa who had a heart attack while seeking shelter. (Eight others were injured, one seriously, when a rocket hit a gas station in Ashdod on Friday morning.)
But Iron Dome’s very success makes Israel look worse in the eyes of the world. There might well be more sympathy for Israel if Hamas broke through and achieved its objective of killing large numbers of Jews. As is usually the case in this asymmetrical war, the death toll is much higher in Gaza, where innocent women and children have died alongside Hamas operatives. The difference is that while Hamas is trying to kill civilians, Israel is trying to avoid harming them while it goes after combatants. Because Hamas hides its launchers, rocket factories, and stockpiles in densely populated areas, it’s impossible for Israel to avoid killing innocents. On Friday the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said there is “serious doubt” that Israel is complying with international human rights law.
The success of Iron Dome to date also creates painfully high expectations for continued success. The burden is felt most intensely by the operators of the seven (soon to be eight) batteries of Iron Dome interceptors, who are like overworked goalkeepers in the World Cup. The Iron Dome can be reckoned to operate automatically, but the Israeli air force has chosen to have human beings push the firing buttons. I spoke today with Lieutenant Colonel Assaf Librati, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, who told me that the people who fire the buttons are low-ranking officers, typically from 19 to 23 years old. The officers are authorized to fire extra interceptors if they feel an extra margin of safety is required or to overrule the Iron Dome targeting software if they think it might be mistakenly perceiving a harmless airplane as an incoming rocket. “They’re making sometimes very hard choices,” Librati said.
It will get harder for Iron Dome to live up to the high expectations for it. Hamas is constantly upgrading its arsenal with faster and longer-range rockets. The nightmare scenario for Israel would be a Hamas or other foe equipped with cruise missiles that can twist and turn in flight to evade interceptors. Or, perhaps sooner, a simultaneous launch of so many rockets that Iron Dome can’t shoot them all down. In a conference call with reporters this evening, Yair Ramati, the director of the Homa Administration within Israel’s defense ministry, said that Iron Dome has improved significantly since its first use in 2011, staying “one step ahead of the enemy.” But he said that Hamas is constantly probing the system for weaknesses.
For now, though, Iron Dome is more popular in Israel than hummus and falafel. And Hamas is still hunting for a way to damage its enemy.