ASHKELON, ISRAEL – Yakov Stern was born nearly 60 years ago in the young state of Israel, and in one way or another, he has been fighting for its survival ever since.
A schoolteacher in the thriving coastal city of Ashkelon, Stern lost his left eye in battle as a tank commander during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Now his generation of soldiers has given way to the next.
One of Stern’s sons deployed last month to the edge of Gaza in preparation for an invasion of the strip, which lies an agonizingly close 16 km from the open-air stadium, synagogues and schools at the heart of the city. But he did not have to enter Gaza, in part because of Stern’s older son, an engineer who helped develop Iron Dome, the missile defense system that knocked down hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza.
In the calm of the ceasefire, Iron Dome has emerged in Israel’s reckoning as a symbol of all that is right with the Jewish state. But it has also become an emblem of the unmet challenges that lie at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For a nation that longs for normalcy and acceptance, one question being debated locally is whether Iron Dome will motivate Israel’s leaders to pursue peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world or insulate them from having to do so.
“It is an amazing new toy,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian whose work often challenges Israel’s official account of the state’s founding. “I say toy because it has turned the horrors of war into a video game. Watching it in action, you forget what this is all about — a deep, historical conflict, and life and death.”
Israelis of various political leanings see worrying evidence in the system’s defensive nature that their country, rather than working to resolve its security problems through decisive military action or lasting peace treaties, is acquiescing to a siege mentality.
“What does the image of a system which does not confront the enemy head-on say about Israel’s narrative?” Ariel Harkham, cofounder of the Jewish National Initiative, recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post. “The Iron Dome does not paint a pretty picture for a country that needs to thrive, not just survive.”
But Iron Dome has also revived, after years of inconclusive wars and grinding military occupations, a distinctive Israeli pride in its technological supremacy. Israel deployed the first drone aircraft in combat during its 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon, and it has since been at the leading edge of military innovation, emerging as a potent competitor to the United States in the international arms market.
If only Israel’s diplomacy could be as inventive, many Israelis say, perhaps a solution to the Palestinian conflict could have been found by now. Peace negotiations are moribund, buried even deeper by the Gaza conflict and by the United Nations’ effective recognition of a Palestinian state late last month over angry Israeli objections.
In lieu of peace, Israeli leaders say, measures such as Iron Dome, which was funded in part by the U.S. government, are vital. Some of the system’s advocates say that by preventing the kind of mass civilian killings that often force military reprisals, the dome will afford Israeli leaders more political latitude to make decisions about war and negotiations.
The dome is the latest and most high-tech stage of Israel’s decades-long national effort to fortify itself from outside threats.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles slammed into Israel, the country’s government required hardened safe rooms to be included in all new homes and apartments.
In Ashkelon — one of the cross-hair cities of southern Israel — reinforcing residential rooftops, bedrooms, schools and other public buildings against missiles from Gaza has been a big business for years.
Then, a decade ago, Israel began building a 675-km barrier in the West Bank, hoping to reduce the horrific suicide bombings carried out by the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which now governs the fenced-off Gaza Strip.
Rather than go through the barriers, Hamas began going over them in Gaza, first with crude rockets made from sawed-off roadside light posts and wrought-iron launching stands, and now with more powerful and longer-range threats.
Israel’s wars in 2006 and 2008 were defined by rocket fire and, in both, the government deployed ground forces to stop it. But the mixed results of those wars, in southern Lebanon and Gaza, left Israelis wondering whether their once-reliable defenses were adequate.
Then Iron Dome premiered in the recent conflict. It sharply reduced Israeli casualties and, in Segev’s words, “revived Israel’s image as a super man.”
“But there is the question here of whether it has changed the Israeli history and image as a nation on the offensive,” Segev said. “Many Israelis are tired of being on the offensive, and maybe a more defensive position feels like the right one at this time.”
For all its jaw-dropping successes, which played like a loop on many television news channels in Israel, Iron Dome had some holes. Ashkelon, a city of wide, palm-lined avenues and parks bears damage from the rockets that slipped through the gaps, and many of its 120,000 residents, while feeling safer, know that the new shield has limits.
Stern’s school is one of three that share a compound at the city’s center. About 8 p.m. a week into the conflict, a missile from Gaza slammed into an eighth-grade classroom across from Stern’s office, tearing off the roof and leaving a chasm in the floor.
In the basement of the school are deeply dug bomb shelters, designed, Stern said, with “big wars” against Egypt and Syria in mind. But Israel’s challenge has changed.
The rockets from Gaza, rather than the once-threatened air raids from farther away, allow significantly less time to file 1,000 students into basement bunkers. Ashkelon residents know they have 30 seconds to get their families into a safe room. When the sirens rang, which they did more than a dozen times a day during the conflict, some students packed into a row of yellow concrete blocks, the size of shipping containers, lined up on one side of the school playground. Others waited in fear for the bang of a rocket strike or the boom of an Iron Dome intercept.
Stern knows the system saved lives and probably prevented a ground assault that would have driven up casualties on both sides. But, he said, “If one rocket falls in a bad way that kills many, we will have to go in.”
At the Afridor apartment complex across the street, another rocket smashed into the fifth-floor apartment of the Vachnin family at dinner time a few days into the conflict. No one was hurt — the family had packed into their safe room — but the missile caused extensive damage as it speared through the floor and into the apartment below. The rocket contained no explosive payload, the army officers who cleared it away told the family, but the fear of sudden violent death remains.
A neighbor, Ayala Makhon, heard the siren minutes after she had returned home from her job as a real estate developer. She and her 15-year-old son, Ben, rushed into the safe room that doubles as his bedroom. On its thick, lead-lined door hang photos of girls in Ben’s high school class and of his basketball team.
The room shook, and she knew that after days of success, Iron Dome had failed.
Through her living room’s sliding glass doors, Makhon looks due south to Gaza, just beyond a stand of distant cypress trees and rolling dunes. She said she has little faith that peace will ever be achieved with the Palestinians, even though she hopes for it.
Iron Dome has brought her a small measure of relief, not only from the rockets aimed at her city but also from potential dangers faced by her son. Ben is three years from mandatory military service, and like many boys his age, he is eager to serve. Like many mothers across the country, Makhon thinks of little else but his safety as a soldier.
“Our sons may never have to go into Gaza again,” Makhon said, glancing at him.