Most Americans probably take news reports of missiles launched by terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel as more of the same. After all, it often seems that news of attacks against Israel and retaliatory airstrikes are as common as the news of mass shootings in the United States.
But what happened in Israel recently is potentially different, and potentially far more challenging for Israel to manage. Since the early 2000s, Israel—in close cooperation with the U.S.—has developed what is perhaps the most impressive counter-missile defense system in the world: Iron Dome. That system is capable of instantly tracking the trajectory of missiles launched against Israel, determining if they threaten lives or property, and if so, intercept them. The success of this system has led many observers to assume Israelis live worry-free under this protective dome.
That’s a myth.
Iron Dome, like any defensive system, has its limits. Those limits are constantly being tested by Israel’s enemies, and because both Hamas and Hezbollah act as proxies for Iran, every time the system is employed Israel’s enemies are paying close attention and seeking to identify vulnerabilities. When Israelis hear air-raid sirens, there is no sense of safety. It’s like someone from the Great Plains hearing a tornado siren—maybe the threat will pass by, maybe it will destroy the town. The fear of being in the path of the missile that penetrates the shield is constant and real.
What makes the current situation different is not, however, the unavoidable reality that no defensive shield is impenetrable; it’s where the missiles are coming from. Unlike past flareups between Israel and Hamas—the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip and uses it as a launch-pad for attacks against Israel—the most recent attacks have come from Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria. This indicates a very different threat. Unlike Gaza, these areas are controlled by Hezbollah, a much more capable and battle-hardened enemy. As explained in this report published by the Jewish Institute for National Security in America—authored by a group of retired U.S. senior combat commanders—the sheer volume of missiles facing Israel from Hezbollah-controlled areas represents a fundamentally different security challenge than that posed by Hamas in the south.
It is impossible to know, for sure, what the density of that missile threat is, but credible estimates put the number in the range of 150,000. This capacity enables Hezbollah to threaten Israel with a missile campaign that would rapidly overwhelm Iron Dome and necessitate prioritizing the protection of vital infrastructure at the expense of civilian exposure. And, while no one can know for certain how Israel would respond to that threat, it is highly likely that it would find itself having little choice but to conduct a major ground incursion into southern Lebanon to neutralize missile sites before they are used.
The damage and loss of life would be widespread and destructive, especially because Hezbollah’s most vital military assets are deeply embedded among the civilian population. And unlike the last time Israel conducted such an operation, in 2006, Hezbollah forces would bring their extensive combat experience from the Syrian civil war into the fight.
And then there is the true wildcard: Iran, which continues to use its proxy forces to wage a low-level war against its enemies. It’s hard to calculate what might push this into becoming something more direct. There is little doubt of the outcome were those lines crossed. Israel would prevail, but the cost to civilians on all sides would be profound.
Israel is trying hard to manage its response to these latest acts of unlawful aggression emanating from both north and south, working to prevent escalation, despite the increased challenges.
One thing is clear: U.S. support for Israel’s military readiness is, and will remain, critically important by both ensuring the protection of Israel from unlawful missile attacks and enabling highly precise and decisive action in self-defense. There may be aspects of Israeli policies that justify criticism, but its supporting its ability to defend itself from the threats from all sides should be a source of unity for Americans, regardless of their politics.
Originally published in Newsweek.