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U.S. aid enabled 'Iron Dome' [Commentary]

When Americans question the value of U.S. foreign aid, one only has to point to the explosions in Israel's skies to demonstrate its worth. The result of the Iron Dome air defense system in action, these blasts occur when there is a successful interception of a rocket fired toward an Israeli population center from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Iron Dome is a uniquely Israeli creation, but American foreign military financing has been crucial in the expansion of this system to provide adequate protection for Israel's eight million citizens — Jews and Arabs alike.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, has indiscriminately fired over 1,800 rockets at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and everywhere in between during the past two weeks, yet there has been minimal damage. Despite ramped up attacks during the current ground operation, Iron Dome has largely kept Israelis safe. The system is able to detect the presence of a rocket in a matter of seconds, and its operators can determine its trajectory and react accordingly. Because of this system, it is estimated that roughly 90 percent of rockets that could endanger civilians have been knocked out of the sky. Iron Dome is actively saving lives.

With such remarkable success, it is worth exploring the creation and development of this technological marvel. Initially met with significant skepticism by U.S. and Israeli defense officials, the idea for a short-range antimissile system took off in the mid-2000s under Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold, then head of research and development for the Israel Defense Forces. Promoted shortly after by then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, it took about five years before Iron Dome became operational, shooting down its first rocket in 2011.

Such an advanced system is exceptionally expensive and receives necessary funding from the U.S. Since 2011, Congress has approved over $700 million for Iron Dome in a rare show of bipartisan support. In 2014 alone, the Congressional Research Service reports $235 million committed to Iron Dome. And last week, the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee approved a defense spending bill that would provide $351 million for the Iron Dome system. One Iron Dome battery can cost upwards of $50 million, so American funding has helped to expand its reach from the south to the north near Lebanon.

Iron Dome demonstrated its capabilities remarkably well during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Hamas fired over 1,400 rockets into Israel; the IDF reported about 400 intercepted by Iron Dome. Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, called the system's success "a testament to the ingenuity of the Israeli people and to the commitment of the United States to Israel's security."

Initially developed by Israeli defense company Rafael, American aid for Iron Dome means the system now pays dividends at home. The money that goes to Israel eventually comes back to the U.S., as Israel has agreed to allow American defense contractors to start manufacturing the system. Although heralded by most everyone as a success, criticism of Iron Dome centers on its cost and a fear of Israeli complacency. While an Iron Dome interceptor missile costs upwards of $60,000, Hamas can make crude but dangerous Qassam rockets for under $1,000. This disparity in cost is made more palatable, however, in that Iron Dome is smart enough to know which rockets to target based on where they are headed. If a rocket is headed toward an open area, Iron Dome operators allow it to hit the ground.

Others fear that Iron Dome gives Israeli civilians a false sense of security. It may be a boon for Israeli morale, but there is a real danger if a confrontation becomes more severe and Iron Dome becomes overwhelmed. Some argue that it deemphasizes the need for a peace agreement, as Iron Dome has provided solutions whereas the peace process has not. In reality, Iron Dome lessens the chance for war as it buys Israel time to negotiate a ceasefire during periods of intense conflict (an opportunity that Hamas squandered this time around). For now, polls show peace with the Palestinians is still a priority for a majority of Israelis; Iron Dome just serves as protection in the interim.

While expensive, Iron Dome is a project that has many benefits. Of course, Americans look forward to a day when Israel will not need such a system and all sides can live in peace. For now, however, when the sirens blare, Iron Dome proves an excellent investment.

Robert Pines, a Gaithersburg native, has worked with several pro-Israel organizations and lived in Jerusalem from 2011-2012. His email is robert.j.pines@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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