There's been a lot written recently about Iron Dome -- Israel's high-tech missile defense system that hit the world stage during Israel's eight-day conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Its unprecedented success rate: Intercepting eight out of 10 rockets launched just miles away. Its rapid development: Iron Dome went from idea to operational in less than five years. Its overwhelming U.S. support: Even during massive proposed defense cutbacks, Washington has pledged hundreds of millions to Israel to expand the system.
I'd like to add one more thought to the conversation. In the recent conflict, the Israeli missile defense system may have saved more Palestinian lives than Israelis. To understand my reasoning, take a step back and look at recent history. Since 2007, the Islamist group Hamas has run the densely populated sliver of territory to the south of Israel known as the Gaza Strip. Militants from the territory, in recent years, have launched hundreds of crude rockets, provided by Iran, into southern Israeli towns. In 2008, Israel responded with Operation Cast Lead -- A brutal aerial bombardment and ground invasion that left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead and brought Israel widespread condemnation from abroad. November's conflict left about 150 Palestinians dead.
How do you explain the stark difference in the death toll? One element would be Iron Dome.
Iron Dome wasn't battle ready until 2009 or 2010. Last year's conflict was its first wartime test. After Israel assassinated a top Hamas militant responsible for rocket attacks, Hamas rained hundreds rockets into Israel -- even as far as Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv. Thousands of Israeli troops amassed on the border with Gaza. But they never went in. That's because Iron Dome didn't just provide Israelis cover from the rockets; it also provided political cover to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a cease-fire before sending troops in.
"The Israelis over the last half decade or so have learned some pretty stark lessons about the diminishing returns of ground offensives in places like Lebanon, in places like the Gaza Strip," defense expert Ilan Berman told me, in a segment on Iron Dome that aired Tuesday on Dan Rather Reports on AXS-TV. "And so, Iron Dome gives them that flexibility that they need. They are addressing a security concern. But they're not addressing it with blunt force in the form of a ground operation. They're addressing it in a way that preserves their security, but limits collateral damage." The full broadcast is now available on iTunes.
The rockets from Gaza are dumb -- meaning, they cannot be aimed at specific targets. But by launching them in the direction of populated Israeli areas, they do cause terror and disrupt normal life. Imagine hearing the roar of air raid sirens while your children are at school. It's unlikely you'll bring them to school the next day.
When the rockets rain into Israel, the Israeli public demands quick and forceful action from their government. But less so when the rockets pose less of a threat. And in November, Iron Dome intercepted 80 percent of the rockets in mid-air. Youtube is filled with video shot during this recent conflict by Israelis who, rather than running for their ubiquitous bomb shelters, stood ground to watch Iron Dome at work.
The Israeli defense establishment is famously secretive, but not about Iron Dome. The Israelis have invited a parade of news media from around the world to film the interceptor launch sites, interview Iron Dome's battery operators and the engineers who developed it. This makes a lot of sense. The more Israel's enemies believe in Iron Dome's infallibility, the less likely they are to waste money and time smuggling and launching rockets. It's a strategy of defensive deterrence. And for the Palestinians, that beats the alternative: Israel's longstanding strategy of deterrence through overwhelming force, as we saw in Cast Lead. Sadly, hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinians and Israelis will die until a permanent peace is reached -- and today that looks like a pipe dream. But in the short run, Iron Dome may save a few lives on both sides.
Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of AXS TV's Dan Rather Reports (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET on AXS TV). For more, visit Dan Rather Reports, Dan Rather's Official website, Dan Rather Reports on Facebook and Dan Rather Reports on Twitter. This episode is also available on iTunes.