Operation Protective Edge: targeting and safeguarding Ben Gurion International Airport

One week after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, airlines and their regulators started to question whether, with Hamas rockets being fired in the direction of Tel Aviv from Gaza, it was safe to continue operations to Israel. Despite the existence of the ‘Iron Dome’, along with the most sophisticated early warning systems, many carriers suspended their operations. Brig. Gen (Res.) Asaf Agmon explains why such action was unnecessary and how, despite the incessant attacks, the airport world-renowned for its security remains a safe destination.

Operation Protective Edge saw Israel, yet again, competing against a structured, orderly terror organisation whose main purpose is to terrorise Israeli citizens and disrupt their way of life, with the intention of forcing the Israeli government to cede to its demands.

Although Hamas ideology claims that Israel, as the Jewish state, has no right to exist and must be annihilated, it is clear to Hamas leadership, both that of the military flank and the civilian one, that it is not in their power to eliminate Israel. Therefore, a significant disruption to Israeli citizens’ daily routines and damage inflicted upon Israel’s strategic assets have become Hamas’ most important objectives.

Thus, Israel’s main international airport, utilised by all overseas scheduled carriers operating to the country, and serving as the gateway into and out of it, is a primary target for a Hamas attack. At the same time, Ben Gurion International Airport is also regarded as a key establishment, warranting, in the eyes of both the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the political echelon, the highest degree of defence capability.

For Hamas, its means of attack are its different kinds of rockets. Hamas rockets capable of reaching Ben Gurion International Airport include: the Fajar 5 rocket, made by Iran, whose range is estimated at around 70km with a 90kg warhead; the heavy M-75, made by Hamas itself, with a similar range and warhead smaller than the Fajar; and, the R-160 rockets, being much longer-range rockets, also produced by Hamas, with a range over 150km with a 120kg warhead. During the present conflict, several scores of the R-160s have been fired in the direction of Israel’s northern region, some almost reaching Haifa. Regardless of type, most of the rockets launched by Hamas have warheads containing a large amount of metal fragmentation designed to maximise their effect when hitting unprotected people.

The main defence system the IDF has at this time against the rocket threat is the Iron Dome system operated by the Israel Air Force (IAF). Iron Dome is a unique system, composed of a locator-radar, which locates the rockets source and tracks its trajectory, several launchers with advanced interceptor missiles (Tamir) and a command and control centre which also determines the likely target. When a missile is identified by the radar detector as having been launched, the command and control system designates a missile, or several missiles, to be launched in the general direction of the threat. These heat-seeking missiles destroy the attacking rocket, causing the mid-air explosion of the intercepting missile; the main threat, at that stage, is the fragmentation of both the Tamir missile and the Hamas rocket.

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