The mistaken firing of the Iron Dome interceptor system on Sunday night apparently attests to the high level of irascibility on the Gaza border surrounding Hamas’ preparations for the upcoming rallies near the fence this weekend. It is not the first episode of its kind. In November there was a false alarm in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area, in the midst of a tense period on the northern border, when aerial attacks against Syria were attributed to Israel.
In the south there have also been occasional false alarms that sent residents running to bomb shelters, but the firing of interceptor missiles at an irrelevant threat is highly unusual. The Israel Defense Forces has investigated the circumstances of the incident, which caused tens of thousands of citizens to stay in their reinforced security rooms, the firing of interceptor missiles costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the launch of tank shells at Hamas observation points along the border.
The preliminary investigation indicates that the sirens were triggered by people in the Strip firing machine guns into the air in the direction of Ashkelon in southern Israel. On Sunday, Hamas' miltiary wing held a large-scale drill in Gaza. The question that remains is whether the gunfire was only a symbolic show of force, or if Hamas deliberately tried to cause Israel's missile defense system to register a false positive.
Hamas is incessantly engaged in developing and experimenting with the capabilities of its rockets, and it was already evident that the organization is seeking methods of penetrating the interceptor systems through its weak points, for instance, with massive and coordinated barrages of fire at several targets.
In any case, the gap between what Hamas did and the cost and intensity of Israel's reaction – not to mention the nuisance caused to Israeli residents on the Gaza border – aroused some embarrassment in the IDF and now requires a thorough examination. The bottom line is that this was a miscalculation that led to an overly extensive Israeli response, offensively and defensively. If Israeli tank fire would have caused casualties from Hamas, it could have led to an escalation exactly on the front that Israel hopes to keep calm.
The primary explanation for the mistaken identification is that the Iron Dome batteries in the south and the sensors attached to them are now calibrated to a higher than usual level of sensitivity. That may be related to the general tension, but also to the incident that took place in December, during the escalation following the announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that he was moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. At the time a barrage of three rockets was fired at Sderot, two of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome.
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This represents a substantial operational achievement: the Palestinians fired 107-millimeter rockets, at Sderot. These were originally air-to-ground rockets that were looted from the warehouses of Gaddafi’s army in Libya, smuggled to the Strip and underwent an improvised conversion for their new use. Such a minor threat is far from the original threats for which the Iron Dome was developed, and still it was a successful interception. But afterward there was criticism of the failure to intercept the third rocket in the barrage, which landed next to an empty kindergarten (at night).
When the IDF is burned, it tends to become overly cautious. It is possible that following the criticism, the level of sensitivity in identifying the threat was also raised. The Iron Dome is constructed to defend an area of concentrated population marked for it in advance as requiring protection. If the system assumes, based on an identification of the track of the rocket, that there is a certain probability that the threat will land within this area, an interception takes place.
Although there is a possibility of human intervention, in such circumstances it is the technological system that responds quickly to the threat (one can easily see a barrage of interception missiles that was launched in the videos from Sunday night). The intervention of the officers who operate the Iron Dome is often done in the opposite direction: to play it safe and decide on interception when the technological system does not clearly identify a threat that crosses the risk threshold.
An analysis of over 700 successful interceptions during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 showed that in about 60 cases an operator decided to intercept despite the fact that the Iron Dome did not react. In most of the cases, it turned out that it was the right thing to do.
Sunday night’s incident is behind us, but the tension surrounding Gaza remains and mainly is arousing unusual anxiety among Israel’s political leadership. Education Minister Naftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi said on Monday morning in a radio interview with the Public Broadcasting Corporation that there is an increased probability of a conflict in Gaza in mid-May on Nakba Day (May 15), when the Palestinians are planning to bring the marches and demonstrations near the separation fence to their zenith.
The IDF believes that it is still possible to control the situation and to prevent, with proper management, a mass confrontation on the border of the Strip during the planned demonstration on Friday. Much depends on the thoroughness of the preparations now being made, on the presence of senior commanders on the ground and on transmitting clear—cut open-fire instructions to the forces. The army would probably be wise to make greater use in these preparations of the Police and Border Police forces, who have a great deal of experience in dealing with violent disturbances.