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The Iron Dome System Is a Monument to Israel’s Hubris

Israeli officials depict Iron Dome as a near-infallible shield against Hamas rockets. But the system’s real purpose is to sustain the illusion that Israel can rule over the Palestinians while pretending they don’t exist.

Israeli soldiers fire artillery shells toward Gaza from their position along the border. (Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)

After eleven days of bombardment, the Israeli government suspended its assault on Gaza with an Egyptian-brokered cease fire on May 21. The offensive killed at least 248 Palestinians, including sixty-six children, and destroyed homes and public infrastructure in Gaza that were already crumbling under the pressure of Israel’s siege and its previous military campaigns.

According to the Israeli military, Hamas projectiles killed one Israeli soldier and another twelve civilians in Israel, including two children and two Thai agricultural workers. These contrasting figures underline a radical disparity in levels of death and destruction.

Mainstream media commentators have attempted to explain — or rather explain away — this disparity by referencing Israel’s much-heralded missile defense system, Iron Dome. An article in the London Times on May 12 suggested that Iron Dome was performing at between 90 and 95 percent accuracy. It cited the comment of an Israeli official: “A few rockets got through, but no one ever said it was 100 per cent fail-proof.”

On May 16, New York Times journalist Marc Santora wrote enthusiastically about the performance of Iron Dome: “As the worst violence in years rages between the Israeli military and Hamas, each night the sky is lit up by a barrage of missiles and the projectiles designed to counter them.”

Santora attributed the relatively low number of Israeli casualties to the shield’s effectiveness, quoting an Israeli military spokesperson in support of this view: “The number of Israelis killed and wounded would be far higher if it had not been for the Iron Dome system.”

Israel and its supporters have been making such claims about Iron Dome’s remarkable efficiency for years, but the evidence to back them up is very thin. In truth, the system is another manifestation of Israeli technological hubris — the belief that high-tech weapons can insulate their state from the consequences of its oppression of the Palestinians.

 

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Israel first deployed Iron Dome in 2011 after its military developed the project in partnership with Israeli weapons giants Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. The US government has bankrolled the system, and the US firm Raytheon became a production partner in 2014. The system gained international renown during Israel’s two assaults on Gaza in 2012 and 2014, which were officially dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense” and “Operation Protective Edge” respectively.

Israeli officials have repeatedly claimed that Iron Dome has been up to 90 percent successful in intercepting Hamas projectiles from Gaza. Many foreign officials, pundits, journalists, and scholars have uncritically echoed these statements. Iron Dome has become a shorthand for Israel’s standing as an exceptional global security “innovator.”

However, this image is deeply questionable. Since 2011, a range of scholars, defense scientists, and other experts have queried Iron Dome’s purported 90 percent success rate. They include US weapons expert Richard M. Lloyd and Philip E. Coyle III, who previously oversaw the Pentagon’s weapons testing program. Reuven Pedatzur, a former Israeli fighter pilot, and Mordechai Shefer, an Israel Defence Prize winner and aerospace engineering expert, have also questioned the program’s efficacy.

MIT’s Theodore Postol, who famously discredited the performance of the American Patriot anti-missile defense system during the 1991 Gulf War, is another sceptic. By his own account, Postol initially “drank the Kool-Aid on Iron Dome,” but he subsequently became one of its most formidable critics. Having analyzed videos of Iron Dome interception missiles between 2012 and 2014, he argued that the shield’s interception rates were nowhere near 90 percent and might even be as low as zero.

Long-standing critics of Israel such as Norman Finkelstein have gone further. While Postol attributed the low number of Israeli casualties from Hamas projectiles in part to Israel’s early warning and bomb shelter systems, Finkelstein has argued that this factor alone cannot explain the lack of property damage in Israel during these periods. He concluded that there was only one plausible explanation: Hamas most likely did not have a substantial arsenal of weapons in 2014, with most of its “rockets” better described as “enhanced fireworks.” Finkelstein argued that Iron Dome “probably didn’t save many and perhaps not any lives.”

The quality of Hamas projectiles has improved considerably since 2014. They are now able to travel over longer distances and can inflict greater damage. The capacity Hamas demonstrated this year to launch larger numbers in quick succession also seems to be a significant development. However, these projectiles remain low-grade, mostly homemade weapons with no guidance systems.

Paid in the USA

The economics of Iron Dome have also raised eyebrows. A single Iron Dome interceptor costs around $50,000, while each battery that fires these interceptors comes with a price tag of around $50 million. In the 2012 offensive alone, some estimates of the system’s cost ranged between $25 and $30 million. US taxpayers picked up most of the bill.

Supporters of Iron Dome predicted that it would be a lucrative export for Israel, and some countries have indeed bought components of the system. However, the vast majority of would-be orders from foreign states never materialized, as the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have acknowledged. Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that of all the countries which expressed interest in Iron Dome, the United States was the only one to go ahead with a single order in 2019. A news report suggests there was another US order at the start of 2021.

Two underlying limitations thus characterize Iron Dome. First of all, its capacity to intercept projectiles remains at best highly contested. While expert analyses of its efficacy have expressed varying opinions, some highly credible figures have suggested that this capacity is extremely limited and quite possibly nonexistent. In response, the Israeli state has provided no reliable evidence of Iron Dome’s technical capabilities.

Secondly, Iron Dome has not achieved popularity as an export commodity. “Battle-testing” the system may have served to make it famous, but the branding of Iron Dome as “combat-proven” has not translated into sales.

These limitations are not at all remarkable: indeed, they have been defining features of missile defense projects in other contexts. Yet Iron Dome continues to enjoy a reputation in popular culture as an exception to this rule. According to Israeli political economist Shir Hever, Iron Dome is perhaps “the most famous Israeli invention.” How can we explain this?

Regardless of its questionable technical performance and marketability, Iron Dome serves a number of political functions for the Zionist project. The system reproduces the anxiety of Israelis about Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations while managing that anxiety at the same time.

We have recently seen widespread sharing of images of Iron Dome and even expressions of “love” for it. In effect, the system aestheticizes Israel’s settler-colonial domination and enables spectators, both foreign and Israeli, to enjoy it as a “life-saving” technology — albeit one that is reportedly harming its own operators.

Iron Dome also enables Israel to rationalize the idea of technology as an “innovative” techno-fix to Hamas resistance. That, in turn, helps entrench Israel’s core reliance on US military aid. In his briefing about the May 21 ceasefire, US president Joe Biden dutifully praised “President [sic] Netanyahu for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days,” and lauded Iron Dome for having “saved the lives of countless Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jew.” Biden then pledged his “full support to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system to ensure its defenses and security in the future.

We must therefore see the production of the Iron Dome “success story” in a wider context. It dovetails with Israel’s wider hasbara strategies and their relationship to US imperialism.

“Nothing to Argue About”

Israel’s efforts to dispel the questions about Iron Dome have been decidedly unconvincing. Between 2012 and 2014, senior Israeli military officials took on the critics of the system. But instead of producing hard data to refute their arguments, they simply asserted that they were wrong.

Journalists often describe the retired Israeli brigadier general Daniel Gold as the “father” of Iron Dome. His response to Mordechai Shefer in 2014 was rather cantankerous in tone:

I won’t make personal remarks here. Let him believe what he wants to believe. Anyone can see what the truth is here. All the interceptions to date are recorded and documented.

When another interviewer pressed Gold to explain why Postol, Shefer, and Lloyd were mistaken, he challenged the very idea of measuring Iron Dome’s track record. With a peculiar invocation of standpoint epistemology, Gold urged people to trust their real-world experience of the system’s “success” instead:

Any layperson can figure out what the truth is … it’s too far removed from reality … I don’t know … I’m not going to get into an argument about technology. It works, I mean, there’s nothing to argue about.

After the interviewer pressed Gold to “prove it!” Gold fell back on assertions once again:

I should prove it? … check it out for yourself and see … the system defends very well … everything is recorded … everything is well researched . . . everything is well known.

This was a typical example of the discourse around Iron Dome. Its defenders have not won the argument about its effectiveness by presenting solid evidence. For the most part, they have just repeated the mantra of “success” until most of the critics gave up.

In a 2013 interview, Theodore Postol noted that he was an American and a longtime supporter of Israel who felt uneasy at seeing his own government shovel money into a system “that hardly works.” He wanted to push Israel to improve it. A year later, Postol clearly grasped that Israel had no plans to provide any evidence of Iron Dome’s 90 percent success rate. He complained that Israel was “taking advantage of the predilection of Americans to support them.”

With the exception of Norman Finkelstein and Mordechai Shefer, the other chief critics of Iron Dome have fallen silent. The Israeli state’s refusal to supply reliable data on its performance makes it impossible to reach a definitive judgement. To the extent that hasbara efforts on the subject have been successful, they have enlisted foreign admirers who help propagate the misleading arguments about the system’s exceptional success.

An Assertion of Power

As China Miéville has argued, the “big lies” of Israeli hasbara are neither believable nor intended to be believed, even if some people do find them convincing. Their real purpose is to “lay out policy” and “muddy the waters.” Miéville believes that such “bullying by absurdity” functions “not as evasion, but as a deliberate and cruel assertion of power, not only over life and death, but, at least in the Gaza Strip, over truth itself.”

This is not a recent discovery. In his book The Question of Palestine, Edward Said argued that we should understand “the struggle between Palestinians and Zionism as a struggle between presence and an interpretation, the former constantly appearing to be overpowered and eradicated by the latter” — a “contest” which, as Said noted, has been “almost comically uneven from the beginning.”

The celebration of Iron Dome as the exemplar of Zionist exceptionalism reflects this. But it also testifies to the underlying arrogance on which Israeli hasbara is based, as Said observed in the 1980s. The grip of such propaganda on world public opinion is slipping as we speak.

Before the most recent escalation, liberal human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem had already begun to adopt the terminology of apartheid to describe Israel’s rule over the Palestinians. Recent solidarity marches and protests against Israeli aggression have reached unprecedented levels.

Even Israeli media pundits are growing anxious that foreign audiences are no longer treating the myth of Israeli “self-defense” with sufficient deference. In an article for the Jerusalem Post, Seth Frantzman worried that international news coverage didn’t uncritically accept Israel’s preferred framing: “The discussions of the rocket fire were often put further down in the articles or were made to seem like retaliation for something Israel had done.”

A Washington Post article by Israeli professor Yagil Levy, which suggested that Iron Dome helps “perpetuate the Israel-Gaza conflict,” was too much for Frantzman, even though Levy’s arguments were fairly tepid. Levy took the claims about the system’s 90 percent success rate at face value, but argued that its political side effects were harmful:

The reduced pressure to resolve the conflict with Gaza also means Iron Dome gives Israelis a false sense of security, based on technological success — which isn’t guaranteed forever — rather than political solutions.

Frantzman tweeted a lengthy thread in response, branding Levy’s article as “the most wrongheaded analysis of the current Israel-Hamas conflict,” and claiming that “defensive weapons like Iron Dome … make peaceful coexistence more likely.” At one point, Frantzman appeared to compare Israel to North Vietnam and Hamas to Richard Nixon, which must have left his country’s US backers scratching their heads.

Iron Dome is no superweapon — more like an extravagant monument to Israel’s hollow promises of being an exceptional “innovator” in “saving life.” It also symbolizes the failure of the Zionist project to eliminate Palestinians from their land as it faces the endurance of Palestinians and their struggle for justice.