Iron Dome is not a defensive system

Dylan Saba

Jewish Currents  /  May 25, 2023

The Iron Dome cannot meaningfully be considered “life-saving” in any value system that recognizes Palestinian humanity. 

Journalists and commentators often describe Israel’s regular assaults on the Gaza Strip—the small coastal enclave that it controls by land, sea, and air—as “exchanges of hostilities.” This term and so many others like it—“escalation of violence,” “rising tensions”—belie the immense power difference between the Israeli military and the nearly two million Palestinians it holds hostage in Gaza. Indeed, even a cursory look at the casualties documented since Israel imposed a blockade of the Strip in 2007 reveals tremendous loss of life on the Palestinian side of the border and only the occasional Israeli civilian death. According to United Nations data, 2,774 Palestinian civilians in Gaza have been killed since the beginning of 2008, while only 30 Israeli civilians have been killed in the same period by Palestinian militants.

This gross asymmetry results in part from the Iron Dome air defense system, a military project co-produced by the Israeli defense company Rafael and the US weapons manufacturer Raytheon. The system, which has the capacity to intercept the vast majority of the largely short-range projectiles fired from militants in the Strip, enjoys bipartisan political support in the United States; Congress has funded it since its development. Following the strikes on Gaza last summer, President Joe Biden praised the Iron Dome, which he said has “intercepted hundreds of rockets and saved countless lives.” The year prior, when Republican Senator Rand Paul initially blocked an emergency round of Iron Dome funding, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez blasted the move from the Senate floor. “Iron Dome is a purely defensive system that protects civilians. It saves lives, regardless of religion or ethnicity,” Menendez declared. “Furthermore, by saving those lives, Iron Dome also preserves diplomatic space for de-escalation, communication, and further negotiations about Israeli and Palestinian long term security and the future of a negotiated two-state solution.”

But this narrow view reflects the total devaluation of Palestinian life endemic to US foreign policy. By almost entirely negating the ability of militant groups in Gaza to respond to Israel’s incursions, the purportedly defensive Iron Dome allows Israel to strike without fear of repercussion. And because the cost is so low when measured in Israeli casualties, Israel can wage perpetual war without suffering domestic political consequences, and is under negligible pressure to pursue diplomacy with the Palestinians. “In theory, a weapon like Iron Dome could be used only defensively. But in practice it doesn’t work that way,” analyst Nathan Thrall told Jewish Currents. “Iron Dome facilitates greater Israeli offensive measures, because it lowers the perceived cost to Israel of escalating or extending or initiating attacks.” In other words, while the Iron Dome may prevent the deaths of Israeli non-combatants, it has made it easier for Israel to engage in deadly operations that take Palestinian lives. Indeed, Menendez’s formulation is backwards: Rather than preserving space for diplomacy, Iron Dome enables Israel’s commitment to the status quo of permanent occupation. Its ultimate function is to entrench an already asymmetrical conflict into a state of ongoing bloodshed, dispossession, and devastation for the Palestinians of Gaza.

A Gazan born in 2005—the median age in the Strip is 18—has survived two Israeli ground invasions: At age four, they lived through Operation Cast Lead, when an invasion combined with aerial assaults left 1,400 Palestinians dead. At age nine, they witnessed Operation Protective Edge, when another invasion and round of bombings killed 2,200 Palestinians. Such a person has also lived through a series of air-only assaults: Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 (when they were seven), Operation Guardian of Walls in 2021 (when they were 16), and smaller but still deadly engagements last year and again this month. A harrowing life, entirely spent enclosed in an area less than half the size of New York City and with the third-highest population density in the world.

The Iron Dome has become a critical component of the Israeli strategy that creates these conditions. Wary of the military resources that might be required either to reoccupy the Strip or to deal with the forces that could seize power in a political vacuum, Israel aims instead to maintain Hamas’s position as Gaza’s governing authority while limiting its ability to deal substantive damage. In a 2014 report following Operation Protective Edge, the RAND Corporation—a US policy and strategy nonprofit—summarized the approach: “[Israel] needs to exert enough force to deter Hamas from attacking but not so much that it topples the regime. As one Israeli defense analyst put it, ‘We want to break their bones without putting them in the hospital.’”

In the years since the blockade began, as Joshua Leifer wrote last week in Jewish Currents, Israel has settled into what is euphemistically dubbed a policy of “crisis management,” by which it avoids both full-scale war and negotiated settlement, preferring instead to maintain its economic and political chokehold on the Strip. Here, missile defense is key, both to hold Hamas and other militant groups at bay, and to manage the way the operations are viewed by the Israeli public. The RAND report highlights the role of what it calls “the perception of success” in sustaining political support for military engagements, explaining that it is not only the system’s prevention of Israeli casualties but the narrative of its impenetrability that so effectively bolsters Israeli confidence. In 2014, this confidence bought Israel time to wage a more protracted war. In other words, by both reducing the threat of casualties from Palestinian rockets and instilling a sense of security in the Israeli people, the Iron Dome provides political cover for a war without end.

Supporters of the Iron Dome system often claim that it saves Palestinian lives by lowering the likelihood of Israeli ground invasions, which result in huge numbers of civilian casualties. It’s not clear that this is the case—there has been one ground invasion of Gaza before the installation of the system and one since, the latter of which was longer and more deadly. The RAND report makes this point directly: By lessening the perceived threat of rocket fire, the Iron Dome “relieved political pressure on senior Israeli leaders to bring the [2014] conflict to a speedy conclusion and allowed for a more deliberate, if slower, operation.” Even if the system has prevented other ground invasions, it’s unclear that this represents a material benefit to the Palestinians. The Iron Dome, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine and Israeli–Palestinian affairs Khaled Elgindy writes, “is more likely to have cost Palestinian lives by deepening an already vastly asymmetrical conflict and extending Israel’s ability to defer a political settlement indefinitely.” Because it effectively neutralizes the deterrence capability of Palestinian militants, the system has ensured that none of the political factions in Gaza have any real power to prevent assaults on its trapped population; thus, it has helped to sustain a lifetime of violence for the Gazan people.

This extended tragedy continued this month when Israeli air strikes killed 33 Palestinians in just five days and injured 90 more. As usual, the human cost of military engagement was starkly uneven: Islamic Jihad, the second-largest armed faction in Gaza, launched hundreds of rockets and other projectiles into Israel in the same period, killing one Israeli and wounding nine others after a purported Iron Dome malfunction allowed a missile to hit an apartment building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot. A Palestinian laborer working inside Israel was also killed by rocket fire. As Leifer notes, limited Israeli casualties are an accepted part of the conflict management paradigm (though it’s possible that even that single Israeli death helped hasten the Egypt-brokered ceasefire; negotiations that had reportedly been stalled began making headway the next day).

The latest attack also demonstrates the kind of political calculations that Israel’s leaders make in the absence of any real threat of retaliation. Analysts have speculated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to launch an operation was driven, at least in part, by a desire to pacify the right wing of his coalition and draw attention away from domestic political turmoil. Indeed, the assault galvanized the support of the Israeli public, providing a much-needed political boost to Netanyahu and his fragile coalition. The opposition’s weekly anti-government protest—part of a series of civil actions contesting the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial overhaul—was canceled for the first time since it began in early January. Though the purported rationale was safety concerns, the opposition parties and protest organizers largely supported the assault. These events illustrate the way that the Iron Dome has allowed other political exigencies to dominate Israel’s decision-making about when and how to wage war. “Like any state, Israel makes cost-benefit calculations when deciding whether or not to initiate an attack,” said Thrall. “What Iron Dome does is lessen the price Israeli pays for its attacks—in Israeli life, especially, but also in property damage—and therefore makes it more likely that Israeli attacks will occur . . . This is a case of the strong doing what they can and the weak suffering what they must.”

Despite its role in cementing a deadly status quo for Palestinians, support for the Iron Dome goes nearly unquestioned in the US. There have been signs of slippage since 2021, however, when Israel’s last major assault on Gaza was met with unprecedented criticism from the political mainstream. When $1 billion in supplementary military assistance to Israel for the Iron Dome came up for congressional approval in the fall of that year, eight Democrats—led by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress—cast the body’s first-ever votes against funding the system, largely on the grounds that any and all military aid to Israel should be conditioned on respect for Palestinian human rights. Controversially, neither Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Rep. Jamaal Bowman, both of whom were endorsed at the time by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), voted against the funding (AOC voted present, while Bowman, who subsequently lost his DSA endorsement, voted in support). Likewise, Rep. Betty McCollum, often heralded as one of Palestine’s staunchest advocates in Congress, voted for the funding on the grounds that Iron Dome protects the innocent: “I voted to support today’s bill because it is intended to save lives,” she said in a statement. In the end, the latter argument proved insurmountable, and the funding sailed through with a vote of 420–9.

Though the 2021 dispute failed to galvanize significant progressive opposition to the Iron Dome, it opened up a debate within the US left about the system’s role in Israel’s broader apparatus of repression. Even within circles where statements of solidarity with Palestinians are ubiquitous, opposition to this purportedly defensive, life-saving technology is often derided as a matter of “purity politics”—a phrase that writer and activist Hadas Thier used in a Jacobin piece arguing that sanctioning Bowman for his “yes” vote would “confine [the left] to . . . continued marginality.” Opposition to Iron Dome is not a symbolic issue, however, but rather a direly materialist one. Simply put, Israel’s missile defense system costs Palestinian lives and perpetuates the economic and military chokehold of Gaza.

Viewed in light of its role in cementing a deadly status quo, the Iron Dome cannot meaningfully be considered “life-saving” in any value system that recognizes Palestinian life alongside Israeli life. Palestine advocates ought to oppose its funding not just because they oppose military aid for Israel in general, but on the specific grounds that by depriving Palestinians of even the most limited means of military deterrence, the US has given Israel a blank check to massacre Gazans whenever it is politically convenient. Especially in the absence of political will from the Israelis to end the devastating siege and blockade, Palestinians, desperate for life, have shown that they will continue to fight back. By funding a system that guarantees their acts of resistance are of almost no consequence to their oppressors, we are consigning them to death.  

Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City, and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents