This one was different.
Yes, the missile and rocket fire into the population centers of southern Israel caused panic, anxiety and quite a bit of understandable distress. As in previous wars, I, along with many other behavioral health clinicians, were called upon to help man special “stress teams” that worked with local officials dealing with the many issues that could develop in a population under constant threat. And yes, people ran, people screamed and people did need to know where to go to for psychological support.
But unlike previous wars, after the first day or two our team noticed a perceptible dip in overall anxiety. Missile fire was increasing, yet anxiety seemed to be decreasing. What was going on?
The answer was quite simple. The “Iron Dome.”
A system that many of Israel’s brightest military experts smirked at and doubted is the undeniable star of this war. Missiles may have been launched, but the chances they would hit were relatively low. Designed to identify which missiles would hit in populated areas and which would likely fall on open fields, the Iron Dome smartly and effectively picked off missile after missile, punching it out in mid-air before any damage was done.
This led a false and somewhat exaggerated sense of safety, since the system was not perfect and any “miss” that fell on a populated area was going to cause considerable damage. As we saw in the tragic deaths of three people in Kiryat Malachi, not being in a properly protected enclosure could lead to serious injury or worse.
So while most people followed the instructions of the authorities and immediately sought out shelter when an alarm sounded, some did not. Some took up the sport of “Iron Dome watching,” setting up lounge chairs in open areas to watch the inevitable show. Others simply waited and looked up at the sky, anticipating the launch and the intercept. Following safety procedures became a real problem, and our task quickly switched from helping people manage their stress to also helping others realize they indeed should be stressed.
While many armchair pundits are offering opinions on “who won” this latest neighborhood spat, what is clear to all is that Hamas could not have possibly expected this degree of success. For all the preparation and thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles assembled in Gaza, Hamas was unsuccessful in drawing Israel into a ground invasion and even less successful in demoralizing the Israeli home front. The hoped-for photos of Gazan families bloodied and destroyed were replaced by the images of the strongest army in the Middle East assembled on the border, biding its time and yes, showing its strength.
Nowhere was there a better example of the words of Mishnayot Avot, “Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”
By holding back, and not “capturing the city”, Israel was able to maintain international support, minimize media criticism and essentially eliminate any accusations of violations of international law. And, oh yes, Israeli ground troops were untouched and Israeli civilians mostly unharmed. All because of “Iron Dome.”
On the last day of the war, our team left Beersheva a little after 8pm, about an hour before the cease fire came into effect. Somewhere just out of the city, sirens started blasting and rockets starting appearing in the air. We decided to take our own advice and quickly turned into a nearby shopping center and began to look for shelter. As we got out of the car, I noticed a bright dot in the night sky getting larger and larger and closer and closer with frightening speed. As it started descending and getter bigger, we saw it coming straight at us. Then, in a matter of seconds, another smaller dot appeared out of the east heading towards the larger dot. In a matter of the blink of an eye, it was over. One large boom and goodbye missile. As we moved quickly towards the shelter, we exhaled and stared at the sky, partly in amazement and partly in shock.
So it really did work.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD directs the Israel-Arab Studies Program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a clinical psychologist who has served in multiple Israeli operations dealing with crisis and stress.