America, Israel, Gaza: missiles and politics

Israel's conflict with Hamas highlights its close partnership with the United States over missile defence. But it also deepens Washington's regional worries over Syria, Iraq, Hizbollah, and Iran.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 July 2014

The unfolding events in Iraq and Syria are creating a single field of conflict. ISIL's rapid progress in Iraq in the first half of June 2014 is matched by its less reported advances in Syria, where the movement has been able to gain support from some other Islamist militias and seize territory previously controlled by more secular rebels. It is also now making gains in Kurdish districts of northern Syria, to the dismay of the large Kurdish population in Turkey as well as the government in Ankara (see Patrick Cockburn, "Isis marches further into Syria tipping the balance of power in the civil war", Independent, 16 July 2014). All this confirms ISIL's place as the strongest opponent of Bashar al-Assad's regime on the ground.

ISIL's success in Syria is owed in part to the substantial amounts of equipment, weapons and ammunition it has taken from military bases in Iraq it overran in the lightning offensive of early June. The booty includes hundreds of Humvees (possibly over 1,000), though these fuel-thirsty vehicles and their use may be limited until ISIL can control more oil production and refining. More important is the capture of more than fifty United States artillery-pieces - 155mm M198 howitzers with plenty of ammunition and GPS-assisted targeting. These can fire up to two rounds a minute over a range of more than 30 kilometres, with potentially devastating impact if used in urban areas (see Mitchell Prothero, “Iraqi army remains on the defensive as extent of June debacle becomes clearer”, McClatchy Washington Bureau, 14 July 2014).

In Iraq, ISIL has consolidated its earlier gains, as attempts by Nouri al-Maliki's government to retrieve lost territory have - so far - failed. The most significant setback is over the city of Tikrit, symbolically important as the heartland of Saddam Hussein's regime (see Mitchell Prothero, "Islamic State overwhelms Iraqi forces at Tikrit in major defeat", Miami Herald, 18 July 2014).

These developments in Syria and Iraq, taken together, are giving the ISIL leadership greater confidence, which is no doubt reinforced by the region-wide anger at Israel's action in Gaza (see "The Gaza-Iraq connection", 10 July 2014).

The United States views ISIL's expansion of territory and power with great concern. The strong tendency of Barack Obama's administration is still to support Israel, yet the prospect that the Gaza conflict will give ISIL and other extreme Islamists a propaganda victory is a particular worry (one that will grow now that the Israelis have moved troops into the territory). The five-hour "humanitarian" ceasefire agreed with the United Nations is a modest step. The earlier proposed suspension, mediated by Egypt, had little prospect of taking hold, given the antipathy of Egypt's president towards Hamas. But Washington will be working hard to promote other attempts, possibly involving Turkey or Qatar and the United Nations.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has been intensely engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Even amid the current outbreak he may rate his chances of acting as an honest broker, and Washington certainly has plenty of levers to pull with Israel if it chooses to do so. At the same time, it has very little appreciation of how toxically the US-Israel connection is seen right across the Middle East; indeed, in the eyes of many, and not just of extremists, the two states are essentially a single entity.

The rocket factor

Several columns in this series written in late 2003 and early 2004 - as the problems for the US in Iraq were multiplying by the week - pointed to the very close connection between the armed forces of the US and Israel (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003), and "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004 ). A later column cited a remarkable example: the construction by the US army corps of engineers of a mock Arab city in the Negev desert, to be used to train Israeli and US troops in urban counterinsurgency (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007). The extension of these links in recent years has opened new possibilities in different areas, in some cases just as graphic. These are central to the current contest between Israel and Hamas, and may become even stronger in a future conflict with Hizbollah.

The new developments particularly relate to the rockets being fired into Israel. Most of the rockets are being intercepted by what tends to be termed “Israeli” missile-defences, and thus few cause damage, death or injury. They are, though, hugely unsettling for the Israelis living in their shadow, and a premium is thus put on defending against them. This attitude was hugely boosted in 2006, when the month-long war with Hizbollah saw missiles from southern Lebanon continuing to hit northern Israel even through an intense Israeli bombardment (see "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection", 7 January 2009).

There is speculation that Hamas's supply of rockets might run out after the closure of most of Gaza's border with Egypt. But analysts have been surprised by the manner in which Hamas technicians have developed the capacity to build their own rockets within Gaza and from basic components. These have long included short-range Grad-type rockets of up to 20-km range, but the Israeli Defence Force estimates that “about 40% of rockets that have a range of 20 km or more are now made in the Gaza Strip” (see Jeremy Binnie & Mohammed Najib, “Gaza militants unveil longer-range rockets”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 16 July 2014). Furthermore, both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) now claim to be able to make and fire rockets with a range of 80 kms.

In the face of these and other innovations, Israel has a layered defensive system designed to counter three different types of missile: the oft-cited Iron Dome batteries (used against short-range rockets), David’s Sling (offering defence against longer-range tactical rockets when it is deployed in a few months), and the Arrow series of much longer-range interceptors (to be used against missiles fired by the likes of Iran).

The joint enterprise

The point about this is that all three systems are essentially joint Israel-US programmes - and have been just about since their inception, both in terms of funding and development. Where funding is concerned, the US's Consolidated Appropriations Act for the financial year 2014 provides $3.1 billion for Israel military spending, but in addition $235 million specifically for Iron Dome (bringing total support for the project to almost $1bn, since the US has provided $704 million in previous years). Moreover, $15 million has recently been committed to help set up a new production-line for Iron Dome in the United States, with Raytheon the likely co-producer (see Jeremy M Sharp, “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel”, CRS Report to Congress, Congressional Research Service, 11 April 2014).

David’s Sling has been a joint US-Israeli programme since it was announced in 2008, again with Raytheon the US partner. Arrow is much older: the development of a longer-range series of interceptors commenced in 1988, also as a joint programme, with the US providing close to half the annual development costs. If the planned US commitment in 2014 is included, Washington has provided $2.36 billion in funding for the Arrow programme.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of US-Israeli military cooperation is the advanced X-band radar missile-detection system produced by Raytheon which is now operational in Israel though under US military control. The recent Congressional Research Report is worth quoting in full:

“Not only is the X-band system reportedly far more capable of detecting incoming missiles than Israel’s natively produced radar system, but the United States also has linked the X-band to its global network of satellites in the U.S. Defence Support Programme (DSP) and to the global U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence System (BMDS). The DSP is the principal component of the U.S. Satellite Early Warning System to detect missile launches. According to various media reports, the X-band system is now operational. It will remain U.S.-owned and is operated by U.S. troops and defence contractors - the first indefinite U.S. military presence to be established on Israeli soil. Reportedly, the system has been deployed to a classified location in the southern Negev Desert.”

This close relationship long predates the Obama administration but it means that the United States is directly and consistently involved in Israel’s efforts to counter the rockets launched from Gaza, with this even extending to US soldiers operating in Israel. It is also indirectly involved in the Israeli assault into Gaza, as many of the Israel troops will have got urban counterinsurgency training in Baladia, the mock Arab city built by the US army (see "Israel and Gaza: from war to politics", 22 November 2012).

In one sense these very close military, financial and strategic links could give John Kerry major leverage over Israel. But they also have the distinct downside that, over across the whole Middle East, Washington is not seen as anything even vaguely approaching an honest broker. Again, both the connections and the perception of them, are a real gift to Islamist propagandists.  

This is difficult for Obama. But if Israel goes much further in the Gaza conflict, killing many more civilians as the ground assault adds to the impact of the air-strikes, this United States president may yet become exasperated enough to give John Kerry the green light to insist that Israel calls a halt.

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