by Moisés Naím
Weapons are for killing. But, surprisingly, sometimes they save lives. This is the case of the anti-missile missiles used by Israel for protection against the rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza in the recent conflict. And I don’t just mean the fact that the system, the now-famous Iron Dome, prevented the death of Israeli civilians. This it did achieve, of course. But it also prevented the death of thousands of innocent people in the Gaza Strip, stopped further destabilization of this troubled region, and possibly even prevented a dangerous armed confrontation between Israel and Egypt. How can a weapon achieve all this?
During the eight days the conflict lasted, Hamas launched 1,506 rockets from Gaza into Israel. More than half fell on empty land. But of the 421 rockets that would have fallen in urban centers, 84 percent were destroyed in the air by the Israeli anti-missile system (which is capable of establishing the rocket’s flight path, and ignoring those that will fall harmlessly on unpopulated zones). A total of 58 Palestinian rockets fell in populated areas, killing five Israelis and wounding 240.
What would have happened had the Hamas rockets been more successful, and had fallen in Tel Aviv and other large cities causing not five, but 1,000, 3,000 or more deaths among the civilian population? The answer is obvious: the government of Israel — like that of any other country — would have invaded Gaza. This would have meant an attack by ground forces and tanks, and house-to-house fighting in one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas, with civilians trapped inside that battlefield.
Though in this new conflict between Hamas and Israel the number of deaths in Israel was limited, this was not the case among the inhabitants of Gaza. According to the UN, 103 civilians died in the Gaza Strip, though Israeli sources put the figure at 57. The Israeli air force reports that it carried out 1,500 attacks on targets in Gaza, destroying almost all the command centers of Hamas, 26 weapons factories, stockpiles of arms and explosives, and more than 12,000 rockets, as well as hundreds of tunnels.
This is not the end of the tragedy, but just one more chapter in a long and painful conflict whose solution will never be a military one. Fanaticism, irrationality and what the historian Barbara Tuchman — in reference to the insanity that leads governments and nations to commit fateful mistakes — called “the march of folly” — have been shaping this situation for a long time. Hamas refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist as a nation, and promises to go on doing everything necessary to wipe it out. And the Israeli government announces it will go ahead with the construction of 3,000 houses in the most politically sensitive settlements of the occupied territories, on the same day that the UN General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority of votes, admitted Palestine as an “Observer State,” implying recognition of its sovereignty over the area controlled by Israel since 1967.
It is hard to imagine positions more absurd and clearly counterproductive. There is incontrovertible evidence that the position of Hamas concerning the destruction of Israel has impeded the progress of the Palestinian people, whose interests it claims to represent. The same goes for the construction of ever more Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. These settlements weaken Israel’s national security. But the dire forces that drive the march of folly never lessen. They are immune to evidence.
Amid all the insanity, and only as a temporary consolation, a few life-saving initiatives appear. Such as these missiles.