Throughout Ukraine, civilians increasingly become the main victims of Russia’s military tactics. Ukraine’s cities are targeted by missile attacks, artillery, rockets, and air strikes. In the besieged city of Mariupol alone at least 2,500 civilians are estimated to have lost their lives.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian military is equipped with aging, predominantly Soviet-era air defense systems that do not provide adequate protection against more modern ballistic weapons and artillery. The country is simply incapable of effectively countering Russian civilian victimization tactics.
Military supplies that Ukraine has received since the outbreak of the war, such as anti-tank Javelins, anti-aircraft Stingers, artillery and light weapons are valuable but also not designed to counter the missile and the artillery threat.
One Western country has the capacity, both military and civilian, to help Ukraine to protect civilians. This country is Israel. Unfortunately, it prefers not to do so.
Israeli military capabilities are well known. Israel is famous for its ability to attack, but the country also has deep expertise in protecting civilians from missile and artillery threats. This is why the U.S. has tried – so far unsuccessfully – to convince Israel to sell Ukraine the Iron Dome air-defense system that Israel developed with American funding.
Since the Iron Dome’s deployment 11 years ago, it has been credited with minimizing the impact of rockets fired from Gaza Strip by saving lives, reducing damage to infrastructure, and providing a general sense of security to Israeli civilians.
Israel’s protective capabilities go well beyond weapons systems. Iron Dome is just a single component of a multilayer response that Israel has developed to counter ballistic and artillery threats.
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Other measures include changes to building regulations to make structures more resilient to strikes, installing nation-wide alert systems, purchasing and deploying portable shelters and making permanent shelters safer to use. Israel has also been developing innovative treatments for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following exposure to conflict.
The Israeli system is not without faults. However, despite the continuous technological improvement of Palestinian rockets and the sheer number of them fired from Gaza, this multi-layered system effectively saves lives.
Importantly, Israel has already sold the Iron Dome to several countries, including Azerbaijan, which uses it for protection against Russia-made missiles. Israel is even willing to provide the Iron Dome to the United Arab Emirates. This begs the question of why the Iron Dome, or any other component of Israel’s response structure has not been deployed in Ukraine, despite the latter’s repeated requests.
Israel is treading a fine line when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Initially, the government had been reluctant to openly criticize Russia’s aggression, but ultimately voted to condemn it in the UN General Assembly – in no small part due to U.S. pressure. In practice, however, Israel sought to remain 'neutral,' i.e. not to do anything that would provoke Moscow’s ire. Israel also attempted to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow, though as of now without much success.
Israeli caution stems from several factors. First, Israel is concerned that any fallout with Russia will curtail its ability to act against Iranian targets in Syria, an important security interest. Second, a conflict with Moscow might endanger the Jewish community in Russia. Finally, the Israeli government maintains that neutrality is crucial for the success of its mediation.
Israel is providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, but the country is reluctant to accept non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees. Israel also promised not to assist Russia in bypassing Western sanctions. Yet most importantly, Israel has refused to even consider military and technological assistance to Ukraine.
Israel’s concerns are valid, but the country’s unique ability to help Ukraine save civilians lives outweighs them. Israel should revise its current stand, and act.
In exchange, Israel should receive U.S. guarantees that it would not incur security costs on the Syrian front. It is unfair to expect Israel risk an armed confrontation with Russia when EU countries are reluctant to stop purchasing Russian gas. Such guarantees are not trivial, but the ongoing negotiations with Iran might provide an opportunity to change the current status quo.
The introduction of complex weapons systems requires time. The Iron Dome is not a panacea at the short term but might be an important tool if the war drags on. Right now, Israeli assistance can concentrate on the readily available capabilities such as alert and launch detection technologies, search and rescue equipment and training and advanced combat and trauma medicine.
Israel should also consider the potential costs of inaction. Ukraine is a populous, pro-Western state. Sour relations between Jerusalem and Kyiv are not in either country’s interest. Breaking ranks with virtually all others Western states, united to counter Russia will also harm Israel’s standing among its main allies.
It is possible to help Ukraine without burning bridges with Russia and, in the past, Israel has been capable of making nuanced choices in pursuit of seemingly incompatible policies.
Finally, and most importantly, helping Ukraine to save civilians lives is simply the right thing to do. The U.S., UK, the EU, public opinion and Jewish organizations in the West can and should demand Israel to choose which side it is on in this conflict.
Eugene Finkel is Associate Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Twitter: @eugene_finkel
Anna Getmansky is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @anna_getmansky