Storm clouds, both literal and figurative, loomed overhead as the first two batteries of Israel’s latest missile defense system — the David’s Sling — went operational on Sunday.
At a ceremony at the Hatzor Air Base not far from the Gaza Strip, Israel’s top defense officials boasted of the capabilities afforded by the state-of-the-art batteries, as tensions with Hamas threaten to put them to a real-time test soon.
Terror group Hamas has reportedly now also acquired rockets with much larger warheads, and tensions have spiraled in recent weeks following the killing of a Hamas commander.
Hamas has accused Israel of the apparent assassination of its terror chief Mazen Faqha on March 25 and threatened revenge.
Israel has not acknowledged any role in the hit and early Syunday Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman insinuated the terrorist group was responsible for killing Faqha.
As the ceremony was taking place, Hamas rejected Liberman’s hints and said it came from a place of fear.
While Liberman also said Sunday that Israel has no plans for another “adventure” in Gaza, some analysts and officials have raised the possibility that a fourth round of violence between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas approaches.
Just before the event, the head of the Israeli Air Force’s Aerial Defense Command, Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch warned that such a conflict with Hamas would “be more challenging” than previous ones in light of the highly explosive, short-range rockets reportedly acquired by the terrorist group.
The David’s Sling, which is designed for mid-range missiles, would not protect Israel against this new variety of projectile and even the IDF’s Iron Dome short-range interceptor system would also struggle against these rockets.
However, standing in front of one of the David’s Sling batteries, Haimovitch said his unit was better prepared than ever to face the rocket threat.
“The David’s Sling, along with the other systems, will give us another layer, another ability,” he said. “I believe that while the next campaign will be more challenging, we will see an air defense network that’s much better trained and much more fit.”
Threats, jokes, electrical failures
At the start of the ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel unveiled the symbols of the air force and Aerial Defense Command on one of the David’s Sling batteries, while Liberman and Haimovitch did the same to the second.
The David’s Sling, also known as the Magic Wand, is designed to shoot down incoming missiles with ranges of 40-300 kilometers (25-190 miles), meaning it could be used against Hamas’s longer-range rockets, but would more likely be deployed against missiles fired by Hezbollah or Syria, such as the Iranian Fateh 110 or its Syrian equivalent, the M600.
The lowest layer of Israel’s multi-tiered missile defense system is the aforementioned Iron Dome, capable of intercepting short-range rockets, small unmanned aerial vehicles and some mortar shells like those that have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip or from southern Lebanon. And at the top are the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems, which are intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles. The Arrow was put in use for the first time on March 17, when it downed an incoming Syrian anti-aircraft missile.
But even with the full complement of missile defense systems, defense officials warn that it is not a hermetic seal and some rockets will inevitably slip past the array.
On stage, Netanyahu spoke forcefully about the importance of the new system and its use not only to “defend the home front, but to let us win the battle.”
‘I will reiterate, that whoever wants to strike us will be beaten, and those who threaten our existence are putting their own lives at risk’
Looking out past the crowd and into the cameras behind it, Netanyahu gave an stark warning to Israel’s enemies: “I will reiterate, that whoever wants to strike us will be beaten, and those who threaten our existence are putting their own lives at risk.”
Liberman, in an apparent attempt to lighten the mood, dedicated a a large chunk his speech to a personal anecdote.
As a fresh immigrant from Moldova, the defense minister lived on the adjacent Hatzor Ashdod kibbutz shortly after arriving in Israel in 1978, where he learned Hebrew.
Liberman told one of the counselors of his language program he wanted to visit the air base, to see from where the planes he heard and saw every day were taking off and landing.
The counselor laughed at the future defense minister. “What are you crazy? It’s forbidden! I doubt you’ll ever be able to visit there,” Liberman recalled him saying, prompting laughs from the crowd.
Turning serious, the defense minister noted the need for such a system, in light of what he described as an arms race in the region.
“In 2016, just the countries in the Middle East invested some $220 billion (NIS 800 billion) in defense purchases — not including Iran,” Liberman said.
David’s Sling was developed in a joint project by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the US Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which was represented at the ceremony by its head, Vice Admiral James Syring.
The head of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel began a speech praising the soldiers of the Air Defense Command as the “true secret” behind Israel’s security, rather than the technology. They “act professionally and with endless dedication and perseverance,” Eshel said.
Eshel started as head of the air force in 2012 and oversaw much of the integration of the Iron Dome system, which went operational in 2011. He is due to leave his position in the coming months.
The clouds menacing overhead didn’t spill more than a few drops during the ceremony, but half-way through Eshel’s speech, his microphone cut out as power to the stage was lost.
The rest of his remarks — mostly thank yous — were made without electronic amplification, and the crowd sang its own slightly-off-tune version of the Hatikva national anthem to bring the event to a close.
Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.