The Costly Success of Israel’s Iron Dome

The country’s missile-defense system tells a national story.

An image of Netanyahu with rockets above his head
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Abir Sultan / Getty

In the 12 days that preceded Thursday’s announcement of a cease-fire, the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched 4,369 rockets of various sizes and ranges from Gaza toward Israel. According to Israel’s military, nearly two-thirds of these missed their target, hitting fields and other open areas, or malfunctioning and falling short. That still leaves about 1,500 rockets that headed for built-up areas. Remarkably, this barrage resulted in only a dozen deaths: More than 90 percent of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s missile-defense system, Iron Dome.

If you’ve been watching coverage of the latest round of fighting in Gaza and Israel, you won’t have escaped the Iron Dome pyrotechnic display, astonishing especially at night as the rockets arching northward from Gaza are picked out of the sky in a litany of mid-air explosions. When it was first established more than a decade ago, Iron Dome had its skeptics, both in Israel and abroad, but over time, they—and the world—have seen it work. Literally.

It is a system that was designed for the challenge facing Israel—specifically, organizations on its borders, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that do not have the personnel or firepower to invade and challenge Israel’s army, but that have accumulated large arsenals of rockets that, although rudimentary and inaccurate, can target most of a small country like Israel. Each Iron Dome battery protects a relatively small parcel of territory, but Israel now has sufficient mobile batteries to protect the areas that are threatened at times of tension.

This architecture is, however, just one of the ways in which Iron Dome is unique. In fact, its very strengths and weaknesses reflect those of the country that developed it, epitomizing Israel’s interminable conflict with the Palestinians.

“On the one hand, Iron Dome is the perfect example of Israeli ingenuity and improvisation,” the journalist Yaakov Katz, who co-wrote The Weapon Wizards, a book about Israel’s arms industry, told me. “But its very success is a reflection of Israel’s biggest problem. Iron Dome allows you to almost ignore the fact that you have a neighbor just across the border with thousands of rockets pointed at you, because they can no longer really harm you. Iron Dome allows you not to find deeper solutions for that problem. And that’s very Israeli as well.”

Iron Dome is incredibly popular among Israelis, and understandably so. Although Israel suffered a dozen fatalities during this month’s fighting, more than 240 Palestinians died. That discrepancy, largely due to the effectiveness of Iron Dome, also bears itself out in physical damage to homes, buildings, and infrastructure more broadly. Even during an intense conflict such as this one, the missile-defense system provides a sense of security.

But it also means many Israelis do not feel the urgency, or sufficient enough optimism, to press their leaders to solve the underlying problems causing the long-term crisis facing Gaza, where 2 million people live in a fetid, crowded coastal strip, under near-total blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took over in 2007. Nor do many feel the need to address the wider historic conflict with the Palestinians that has been going on since before Israel’s founding in 1948. According to the pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, Israelis rank security first on their list of priorities, followed by financial concerns; resolving the conflict with the Palestinians typically ranks fifth or sixth, and is seen by Israelis as separate from the feeling of security. “You’ve got to ask yourself,” Scheindlin told me, if Israelis focus on security as defined by a piece of military hardware rather than on the core problem itself, “isn’t that a false sense of security?”

Much of what provides that sense of security is the visible deterrent that Iron Dome offers, cutting off rockets in the sky. What Israelis don’t see is the true heart of the system—not the interceptor missiles or the mobile batteries, but the mathematics. The algorithm that has been coded into the system, and that is constantly being improved upon, enables Iron Dome’s control center to track and predict the trajectories of incoming missiles, working out where they can be expected to fall, and issuing interception orders only if the point of impact is a built-up area, so as not to waste expensive interceptor rockets on harmless projectiles.

This level of calculation is also often attributed to Israel’s leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in office for the past 12 years. Netanyahu—much like Iron Dome itself—has been able to mask smaller failings in a greater success; he has, like the missile-defense system, warped the notion of how much time he and his country have to respond to threats; and he has, similar to Iron Dome, used technology to hide deep, structural societal flaws.

Take his response to the coronavirus pandemic. The whole world by now is aware that Israel was the fastest country to roll out COVID-19 vaccines and to have a majority of its population vaccinated. The program has been a tremendous success, and Netanyahu has sought to claim the political credit. What’s less known, or at least overlooked, is that before vaccines became available, he presided over a shambolic set of coronavirus policies. For long periods in 2020, Israel had the highest per capita rate of new reported infections in the world; only the comparatively low median age of its population kept the death toll down.

There are multiple reasons for Netanyahu’s COVID-19 failings. Because of political pressure, from both the Trump administration and special-interest groups within Israel, he was slow to shut off air travel to and from the United States, the source of most of his country’s early COVID-19 cases. And he refused to force Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, his key political allies, who live in de facto autonomy within Israel, to abide by lockdown rules, allowing the virus to run rampant in their schools and synagogues.

And similar to how Iron Dome has changed how Israelis see time—in terms of how much of it they have to respond when projectiles are fired—Netanyahu has changed how they view time when it comes to the long-term prospects for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. For decades, politicians and pundits at home and abroad have warned that Israel is running out of time to resolve the conflict—that international condemnation, pressure, and even boycotts and sanctions would isolate it; and that internally, it could not deal with the challenges of Palestinian population growth and resistance.

Netanyahu has insisted the opposite: that if Israel remains steadfast, the world, including Arab states, will give up on the Palestinian cause. He wrote in his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, that “for the foreseeable future the only kind of peace that will endure in the region between Arab and Arab and between Arab and Jew is the peace of deterrence,” and that such a strategy would have to suffice until the Arab world realized that it “stands to gain as much from making peace with Israel as Israel stands to gain from making peace with the Arabs.” Iron Dome is one of his tools for keeping the peace of deterrence and making time work in Israel’s favor.

And then there is Israel's—and Netanyahu’s—dependence on technology to make up for more intrinsic flaws. When early COVID-19 vaccines were about to be authorized by the United States, he bombarded Pfizer’s chief executive with dozens of phone calls to secure early shipments for Israel. Here, as with Iron Dome, Israel’s high-tech prowess came to his aid: Israel’s public health-care providers, which were to be in charge of administering the vaccine, have advanced digital medical records, and Netanyahu was able to offer Pfizer real-time data on how the vaccine was working in return for early shipments. In his office in Jerusalem, he now has two glass cases: In one is a model of an Iron Dome “Tamir” interceptor missile; in the other is the syringe that was used to inoculate him.

Yet behind this technological marvel is creaking national infrastructure and failing social services, for both Jewish and Arab citizens. That’s why, when the few rockets from Gaza did get through the Iron Dome shield this month, those who were killed were in nearly all cases old, disabled, poor, homeless, or residents of Arab villages without government services and therefore no bomb shelter. And while Israel’s air force simultaneously operated Iron Dome and kept up a steady rate of air strikes in Gaza throughout the recent campaign, within Israel’s cities there were insufficient police to deal with the riots that broke out between Arabs and Jews. Here we see another structural flaw in the Israeli state that Netanyahu has neglected.

With its remarkable success rate, Iron Dome is as close as possible to being the perfect defense system. It illustrates Israel’s remarkable technological prowess and the country's unwavering focus on the defense of its citizens. But Iron Dome's tremendous capabilities paper over more fundamental challenges—ones that Israel’s leader seems unwilling to resolve.