The lessons of war are usually learned after the fighting stops. But for the Israel-Hamas battle, now in its 16th day, a number of lessons are already sinking in.
First, the Iron Dome anti-missile technology really works, and it is improving constantly. Hamas has fired thousands of rockets and missiles, day and night, at civilian populations, and it has managed to kill or wound a handful of people.
Hamas has wasted a fortune building a weapons system that fires blanks. But even blanks have their uses. On Tuesday, the world’s major airlines suspended flights to Israel after a missile hit a house not far from Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. No one was killed, but no one needed to be for the airlines to stop flying, leaving Israel partially cut off.
For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning that something like this could happen, and now it has. Israelis who dismissed this as alarmism have learned that they were wrong. It is highly unlikely that any Israeli government will end the fighting before it achieves the dismantling of Gaza rocket arsenals (including those hidden in mosques, hospitals and, as was recently discovered, U.N.-run schools) and munitions factories.
Iran has to be watching the success of Israel’s Star Wars defense with concern. The Iron Dome, designed for short-range missiles, can shoot one down in 15 seconds. Israel has systems for Iranian missiles whose flight time is minutes, not seconds. Iran has spent vast amounts of money and diplomatic energy on building a ballistic missile threat. The ayatollahs now have to wonder if they wasted their money.
There is a lesson for Israel, too. Thus far, its air force has been unable to reliably find or penetrate Hamas bunkers located 60 feet underground. If and when Iran acquires nukes, they will presumably be deeper, more scattered and far better protected. Talk about bunker-busters taking out Iranian nuclear facilities now seems fanciful. This, in turn, will probably affect the nuclear negotiations going on between Iran and the international powers.
Surprisingly, the vast underground system of tunnels has emerged as a major military asset for Hamas. It not only protects the Hamas command; it allows its fighters to move around undetected, infiltrate Israeli lines and even pop up on the Israeli side of the border for attacks on civilians, which have been aborted so far.
Israel has discovered no technological answer to this threat (and neither has America, which has a similar, albeit less lethal, problem on its Mexican border), a failure that is already being studied by Israel’s neighbors – Hezbollah in the north, Al Qaeda elements in the Sinai Peninsula and Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank.
The Israeli defense industry, which has spent years figuring out how to hit a bullet with a bullet miles above the earth will now be giving top priority to finding a solution to underground fortifications of the kind that date back to antiquity.
Meanwhile, average Israelis have grasped the ancient truth that land matters, and that giving it up, especially if it is next to your house, is dangerous. The West Bank and East Jerusalem are within tunneling distance of the homes of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Supporters of territorial compromise and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank are going to have to explain to voters how exactly they would be protected from armed Palestinians popping up in their back yards.
I would say this put a spoke in the wheel of America’s Middle East diplomacy, but all the wheels of that wagon have already come off. Recent U.S. blunders – leaving an undefended Iraq to the tender mercies of ISIL jihadis, leading Libya (from behind) into chaos, erasing the red line President Obama drew in Syria, the administration’s vainglorious boast that it decimated an obviously metastasizing Al Qaeda and the abortive American effort to reach a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – have left Washington looking feckless.
One of the worst of America’s blunders was Washington’s inexplicable preference for Egypt’s radical Muslim Brotherhood government over the pro-Western, anti-jihadist military regime that overthrew it last year. On Tuesday, there was payback for that one. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Egypt to talk with President Abdul Fattah al Sisi, who has emerged as the leader of a moderate bloc of Sunni Arab states. At the gate of the presidential palace, Egyptian security guards subjected Kerry and his entourage to body searches with metal detectors and then released the footage to the media, enabling the entire Middle East to see the president of Egypt flip the bird to the American secretary of state.
From Cairo, Kerry flew to Israel. On arrival he suggested an immediate cease-fire and talks between the parties (led by him, of course) to deal with the “underlying issues.” Hamas said hell no. Netanyahu responded with an eloquent shrug.
The sides don’t agree on much, but they do know that America isn’t going to solve any problems here. That, too, is one of the lessons of this war.