Analysis |

Million-dollar Missiles: When Syrian Warheads Fly, Israel Doesn’t Take Chances

Better to shoot in vain than risk a rocket hitting an Israeli town with its half-ton warhead. Still, the two misses by the new David's Sling system will have to be investigated

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A David's Sling system fires a test missile, 2015.
A David's Sling system fires a test missile, 2015.Credit: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The rocket fire from Syria Monday morning wasn’t the successful baptism of fire envisioned for the David’s Sling anti-missile system. The Russian-made SS-21 rockets were fired within minutes of each other by the Syrian army, and were launched from the east heading west toward the border with Israel in the Golan Heights. The rockets were probably supposed to hit the enclave in Syria still held by a local arm of the Islamic State, in the southern Golan Heights near where Israel, Syria and Jordan meet.

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The interception system determined that the rockets might land in Israel. Sirens went off in Safed, elsewhere in the Upper Galilee and in the Golan Heights, and the decision went out to fire two David’s Sling interception missiles.

Because of the high tensions both in the north and the south in recent months, Israel’s air defense commanders have been given orders to minimize risks. When in doubt, better to shoot in vain than risk a rocket hitting an Israeli town. Something similar happened in the south in March when an Iron Dome system was activated when people in the Gaza Strip fired into the air.

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But the incident in the south stemmed mainly from the sensors’ calibration to be especially sensitive. The threat in the north is of an entirely different magnitude. These are missiles with ranges topping 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a warhead weighing nearly half a ton. When a missile like that could hit a building in Israel, you can’t take a calculated risk. Thus the decision to intercept was justified despite the heavy cost – about $1 million per interception missile.

Labor pains

In the event, the Israeli interception missiles missed their mark. Both Syrian rockets fell on the Syrian side of the border, the eastern side. One fell only about a kilometer from the border. The interception missiles, having missed their targets, had to be destroyed by their Israeli operators.

That’s a poor operational result that the air force will have to investigate, though it’s no calamity. The system is still experiencing labor pains, and the decision to fire was preferable to a decision not to fire, which could have ended in disaster.

Defense officials’ smoke and mirrors in describing the incident are less understandable. One claim Monday was that a decision was made not to intercept because the missiles were clearly going to fall in Syria. That contradicts the reasoning behind an early decision to use David’s Sling. Nor is the army likely to decide at the last second to take that risk, not when the risk is that half-ton warhead. The army has been known to fire Patriot missiles at drones that were farther from the border.

As far as is known, the missile fire was not a Syrian attempt to close accounts after Sunday’s air raid in northern Syria that foreign media have attributed to Israel. Among the priorities of the regime and its supporters, regaining the Syrian Golan from the rebels is more important than trading blows with the Israel Defense Forces. Leaving aside stray missiles, the fight between Bashar Assad’s forces and the rebels in southern Syria hardly affects Israel directly.

The raids by the Russian air force, and shelling by Assad’s forces, are intended to vanquish the Islamic State enclave. In the rest of the Syrian Golan, the regime and Russian forces are negotiating a surrender by the local rebel militias. Some agreements have already been signed.

Members of the Syrian White Helmets organization and their families passed through these areas early Sunday – into Israel and from there on to temporary sanctuary in Jordan. Still, a surprising gap exists between the numbers supplied by both countries. Israel said it had transferred over 800 members of the organization and their families to Jordan, while Jordan spoke about half that number. At this point it’s still not clear who’s right and if members of other groups were among the refugees.

On Monday, the Russian foreign minister and military chief arrived in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom they had met with during his visit to Moscow less than two weeks ago. The frequent meetings may be evidence that the understandings between Israel, Russia and the United States on arrangements for southern Syria after the Assad regime returns to the area haven’t been finalized.

In the official statements and leaks to the media, Israeli officials emphasize two points that have received a certain amount of support from the Russians. The 1974 disengagement-of-forces agreement between Israel and Syria after the Yom Kippur War will be the obligatory framework for the new arrangements. The Russians will commit to keeping Iranian forces and their Shi’ite militias away from the border with Israel – it seems up to 80 kilometers. (Late Monday, a senior official said Russia was working to ensure the removal of Iranian forces to 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights.)

In an article on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion says the disengagement agreement was intended to prevent a conventional confrontation between two standing armies. The full return to the area of the UN Disengagement Observer Force could ensure that the Syrian army keeps the old agreements. But UNDOF’s mandate isn't appropriate for keeping Iranian and militia forces away from the border regions, as they’re not a regular standing army with heavy equipment.

Therefore, the 1974 model isn’t appropriate for the Golan Heights in 2018, says Orion, who in his last position in the military headed the strategy and foreign relations division of the General Staff. A more relevant framework would resemble the arrangements for southern Lebanon after the 2006 Second Lebanon War – and as everyone knows, this approach too is full of loopholes that have been exploited by Hezbollah.

Back to Gaza

In Gaza, for now, tensions have seriously dropped on both sides of the border. The air force may have fired Monday afternoon at a Palestinian cell that the IDF said was trying to launch incendiary balloons. But since the cease-fire took effect at midnight Friday into Saturday, only a few incidents have been recorded and the IDF sees a willingness by Hamas to reduce the violence.

Accordingly, tensions have dropped on the political front. On Monday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, tweeted his reservations about a military operation in Gaza.

In Hebrew, Bennett wrote that “there is no justification for endangering IDF soldiers in a ground operation in Gaza,” but only after exhausting every other possibility first. “To the best of my judgment, we’re still far from there. It’s possible to stop the fire terrorism without entering Gaza,” Bennett tweeted, referring to the incendiary balloons and kites.

“The terrorist incidents in the north of Israel and in the south are led by the same head of the octopus sitting in Tehran,” Bennett added. “Iran’s goal is to entangle Israel on many fronts at the same time.”

In other words, Bennett says he’ll stop trying to outflank Netanyahu on the right with a demand for more aggressive action in Gaza and will allow Netanyahu a time-out to reach an arrangement in Gaza. After the harsh disagreement between Bennett and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at the security cabinet meeting – which contributed to the almost war-like atmosphere in the cabinet and military only a week ago – this sounds like very good tidings.

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