Hamas has resumed rocket manufacturing in Gaza, the head of the Israeli Air Force’s Air Defense Command said.
“The production lines are running again, but the supervision of what’s going into Gaza is more hermetic, so it’s harder for them,” Brigadier-General Shachar Shochat told The Times of Israel. He said the terror groups’ domestic capacity to build rockets would also be determined by the degree to which they diverted construction materials to their war machine.
Discussing the 50-day Israel-Hamas war and its aftermath, Shochat estimated that the Iron Dome rocket defense system had saved “dozens, if not hundreds” of Israeli lives, and said that without it, “thousands would have been injured, and the damage to infrastructure would have been colossal.”
He also robustly defended Israel against criticism for the deaths of civilians in Gaza — some 2,100 Gazans were killed, according to UN and Palestinian figures, which asserted variously that two-thirds to three-quarters of the dead were civilians. Israel said about 1,000 of the dead were Hamas and other gunmen.
“We made supreme efforts to minimize harm to noncombatants,” said Shochat. “There is careful control of everything from the choice of targets to oversight of the operation in real time. Other armies come to learn from us how we minimize the impact on noncombatants.”
Mistakes were made — inevitably, during a war, he said — but “these are unintentional and we profoundly regret these casualties. For the other side that’s their strategy. Nobody on the other side regrets the killing of Daniel Tragerman” — the four-year-old killed in his home at Kibbutz Nahal Oz by shrapnel from a mortar shell that landed outside. “Quite the reverse.”
The interview was conducted in Hebrew at Shochat’s office in the IDF Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv. Excerpts:
The Times of Israel: Who started the summer war?
Shachar Shochat: Hamas did all it could to prepare, with rockets and missiles, and tunnels, and drones, and sea commandos. Hamas sought this conflict. It was isolated, out of the spotlight — politically and financially isolated. We said we would agree to quiet for quiet. They imposed the conflict on us.
How effective were Israel’s air defenses?
We endlessly prepare for potential threats. Air defense was thoroughly prepared. We had Iron Dome. Our Home Front defense was good. The alerts and alarm systems were so good that we were able to alert people to incoming rockets by neighborhood. We knew, for example, that a rocket heading to Tel Aviv was heading for a particular area. We had people in Tel Aviv complaining that they didn’t hear the sirens, but that was because their neighborhood was not in danger.
Am I right in thinking it costs $50,000 every time Iron Dome fires an interceptor?
Yes, but the correct calculation is how much damage — to property and to life — the incoming rocket would have caused if it had not been intercepted. Without Iron Dome, dozens, if not hundreds would have been killed, hundreds to thousands would have been injured, and the damage to infrastructure would have been colossal.
The success of our air defense also protected the Palestinians, because otherwise we would have had to employ greater offensive military capabilities. We do have far greater capacities.
Did Iron Dome intercept rockets heading directly to the airport?
All I can tell you is that no rocket fell at the airport and no flight was endangered. Hamas fired in the direction of the airport. No rocket or shrapnel fell at the airport. More broadly, the economy functioned.
Was the two-day abandonment by two-thirds of foreign airlines when a rocket fell in Yehud, near the airport, justified?
The decision of the FAA wasn’t solely professional.
What was the success rate of Iron Dome?
Over 85 percent.
I was surprised that Hamas hadn’t figured out ways to get past Iron Dome.
We did our homework, and we have very smart students. Iron Dome’s performance in Pillar of Defense [in November 2012] was a success, but we understood that we had to keep learning and we did keep researching. We spent 18 months researching and implementing new procedures, training, equipment. It was very systematic.
Much of the international community argues that Israel killed far too many civilians.
We made supreme efforts to minimize harm to noncombatants. There is careful control of everything from the choice of targets to oversight of the operation in real time. Other armies come to learn from us how we minimize the impact on noncombatants.
More than one strike was halted in mid-fire because of noncombatants. Of the 2,000 fatalities in Gaza, a not inconsiderable number were terrorists and most of the others were hurt because terrorists used them as human shields, firing at Israel from schools, hospitals and residential areas.
We made mistakes. The case of the young children at the beach, for instance. These are unintentional and we profoundly regret these casualties. For the other side that’s their strategy. Nobody on the other side regrets the killing of Daniel Tragerman. Quite the reverse. They tried to kill him.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the “knock on the roof” cartoon that was in the papers the other day. We set the international standard. But it’s a war. Our job is to protect our civilians. Where we erred, we investigated.
Does Israel have a solution for the mortar shelling that proved so devastating in the areas adjacent to Gaza toward the end of the war?
We have potential solutions. Laser solutions are being examined.
Does Hamas have the capacity to make rockets even under the blockade, and have they restarted rocket manufacture?
They have the capacity to manufacture. They’ve restarted and they can produce rockets, the more so if that’s how they use incoming [dual-use] materials. The production lines are running again, but the supervision of what’s going into Gaza is more hermetic, so it’s harder for them.
Will there be more rounds of conflict?
The threat has not been lifted. It’s up to them. If they keep hitting us, we’ll not sit quietly.
How serious is the threat from Syria and Lebanon?
There are more rockets with a higher quality and bigger warheads. [Hezbollah is] supplied and trained by Iran and they have their own production capacities. They have tens of thousands of rockets — anywhere from 100,000 to 170,000. The precise number is less relevant. It’s a different order of danger. So we’re preparing offensive and defensive responses. It’s more of a challenge.
Why is it said the Iron Dome would not be able to cope with a major attack by Hezbollah?
Iron Dome has its capabilities, but we’d need more forces, greater capabilities and a more offensive scale.
And how serious is the rocket threat from the West Bank?
I’m not sure that there have been any rocket attacks from the West Bank. Maybe there was one case. But the fact is, of course, that it’s not that Israel has no strategic depth. We have no depth. Look at the distance from Tulkarem [on the western edge of the West Bank] to Netanya [on the Israeli coast — nine miles]. All of Israel is “adjacent” to the West Bank.
Years ago, a former air force commander told me with horror about rocket cells in Gaza taking kids with them when they went to fire at Israel because they knew that then Israel wouldn’t fire at them. Are they still doing that kind of thing?
Yes. We saw snipers dragging kids along with them too, so we wouldn’t fire.
Does Israel have greater capabilities than anybody else in terms of the accuracy of airstrikes?
The US may have some better technologies.
We insist on this freedom, all along the hierarchy, to abort, even at the last moment, to avoid harming noncombatants. This extends from the people who are selecting the targets to the control room all the way to the pilots. The pilot has the right to say: I don’t think so.