Israel’s failure to intercept missile highlights weak spot of air defenses

Iron dumb

April 23, 2021 - 19:42

TEHRAN – Top-secret Israeli nuclear reactor of Dimona hit global headlines Thursday after a mysterious missile coming from Syria landed in the vicinity of the facility, setting off air raid sirens and causing Israeli officials to give conflicting reports on what happened near the nuclear facility.

The Israeli military identified the projectile as an SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired by Syrian forces against Israeli aircraft. An Israeli military spokesman admittedly said that the missile reached the Dimona area, 200 km (125 miles) south of the Syrian border.

Although the spokesman said the missile did not hit the reactor and exploded some 30 km (19 miles) away, the fact that a missile flew from Syrian territories all the way to Israel’s secretive nuclear reactor raised alarm bells in Tel Aviv, prompting Israeli official to acknowledge their failure in intercepting the missile. 

The Syrian missile that fell near Dimona was a sizeable blast that could be heard in Jerusalem, about 150km (93 miles) away from the site, according to Al Jazeera.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel's anti-missile systems had attempted to intercept the SA-5 but were unsuccessful.

Commenting on Thursday’s incident, he said, “In most cases, we achieve other results. This is a slightly more complex case. We will investigate it and move on.”

Gantz claimed that the missile landed deep into Israel as a result of errant Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The Israeli defense minister’s remarks further exacerbated concerns over the effectiveness of Israel’s much-vaunted air defense capabilities. 

This failure happened in the midst of Israeli military buildup over the past weeks. Israeli media have boasted about Israel’s efforts to strengthen air defenses around the Dimona facility and the Red Sea port of Eilat in anticipation of a possible long-range missile or drone attack, according to Reuters. Israelis have been boasting about their air defense systems, including the Iron Dome air defense system, which was designed to intercept and destroy rockets and artillery shells. However, the system failed to protect Israel from missiles and rockets, bringing into focus the shortcomings and inabilities of Israel’s military.

Israeli military officials have sought to portray their capabilities in the field of air defense as superior and impervious to attacks. But Thursday’s missile proved otherwise. They are now focusing on how a Syrian missile traveled more than 120 km to land in a close distance of a heavily fortified nuclear reactor thought to be producing or hosting nuclear warheads while their various air defenses failed to intercept it. 

The Israeli failure heavily damaged the reputation of Israel’s air defense capabilities given that the missile entered Israel’s aerospace amid heightened tensions with Iran, which accused Tel Aviv of acts of sabotage against various Iranian targets including a key Iranian uranium enrichment facility. In addition, earlier this month, Israel targeted Iranian commercial ship Saviz in the Red Sea exactly on the same day Iran and the P4+1 - Russia, China, France, and the UK plus Germany - resumed talks in physical format in the Austrian capital of Vienna to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Israeli commentators criticized the government of Benjamin Netanyahu for demonstrating incompetence in thwarting the missile flying toward Dimona, calling on the government to tell them the truth that there is no functioning government in Israel. 

Eran Etzion, a former Israeli diplomat who served as deputy head of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office, echoed this call on Thursday, describing the Dimona missile as a “wake-up call” for Israel.

“Israel is in a dangerous twilight zone - there is no cabinet, no functioning government, the Knesset is paralyzed, there is no Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, [the attorney general of Israel, Avichai] Mandelblit is a salt man in Sodom, the High Court is leaning aside like the Tower of Pisa in high gear,” Etzion wrote in an op-ed for the Israeli Zman news website, according to Al Mayadeen.

“The missile that landed last night around Dimona is a wake-up call,” Eran warned, adding that it is no longer possible in Israel to know anything for sure.

Ordinary Israelis have been kept in the dark about the events of the past few days. One day before the Syrian missile landed around Dimona, several Israeli media outlets reported that a powerful explosion had rocked the Tomer factory manufacturing advanced weapons. Netanyahu’s rival, Avigdor Lieberman, seized the opportunity to level criticism at the embattled Israeli prime minister. 

He said that there is “no functioning government, and the power of the deterrence is spent.” Liberman noted that Netanyahu “is asleep at the wheel because he is busy with his personal affairs,” and called on the Knesset to “end the paralysis.”

Criticism over Thursday's missile against Netanyahu arises from the fact that this missile caused serious troubles to Israel. 

Israel Hayom, a newspaper close to Netanyahu, said the Syrian missile should trouble Israel for several reasons. “The first is the urgent need to determine why the interception failed. Did it happen because a missile operator made the wrong decision or other reasons? The flight trajectory of a surface-to-air missile is particularly challenging because the missile alters its flight path mid-air as it constantly seeks to ‘acquire’ new targets,” the newspaper said, adding that Israel’s interception systems, which were developed to counter the threat of missile and rocket attacks, now must also provide a response to new threats – from cruise missiles and drones to surface-to-air missiles. 

The second reason is that advanced missiles such as the one that exploded over the Negev on Thursday after it was fired from a range of hundreds of kilometers, can cause considerable distress and damage to Israel, the newspaper continued. And the third reason is that such incidents could give the Syrians more confidence and the impression that it can establish a new balance of power against Israel, the newspaper noted.

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