Iron Dome can't help Ukraine, but Israeli field hospitals and doctors will

Israeli tech is designed to shoot down improvised Hamas arms, not Russian missiles

March 17, 2022 11:57

Lieutenant-Colonel Vadim Bodanov stood at a windswept road-block and broke out laughing when he realised that the car which has just stopped there contained Israeli journalists. He wasn’t sure in which language to speak with them. He first tried  French but quickly moved to English.

The first few sentences of his jovial address to the Israeli public describing what he says the Ukrainian army has done to the invading Russian soldiers are unprintable in a family paper. His appeal can however be quoted nearly in full: “All we need now to finish off the job is four things: money, money, more f***ing money and Iron Dome.”

In normal times, he is a lawyer in his home-town of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. Three years ago, he ended his military career where his most senior posting was as the commander of an air defence battalion. Like all military men in Ukraine, he was pressed back into service just before the Russians invaded three weeks ago. He was sent 400 miles down south to oversee the security on the Odessa-Mykolaiv motorway, along the Black Sea coast.  

Bodanov is right about the first three items on his list. Whatever the outcome of the war, whenever it ends, Ukraine has already suffered hundreds of billions of pounds worth of damage to its national infrastructure and private property, as well as the cost of shutting down of most of its economy and blockading its exports. It will need a massive influx of cash to help it restart and alleviate at least part of the terrible suffering. But despite Mr Bodanov’s former expertise in air defence, and a number of greatly exaggerated reports about Israel’s supposed refusal to sell Iron Dome to Ukraine, it wouldn’t do very much to help the situation. 

What Israel’s ingeniously simple and effective submachinegun, the Uzi, was to the Israeli arms industry in the previous century, Iron Dome is to this one. It has become a catch-phrase for Israeli inventiveness and ingenuity when it comes to developing in record time the perfect solution for its defence needs. Which is why it’s the wrong solution for Ukraine. The reports of Israel’s “refusal” to supply it to the Ukrainians were grossly exaggerated, as it wouldn’t have made much sense anyway.

Iron Dome was designed to protect relatively small urban areas from makeshift and relatively short-range rockets launched by terror organisations. And it does that better than anyone could have expected. It would be much less effective against the vast range of rockets and guided missiles which the Russian army can fire in massive salvoes from dozens of launchers at widespread targets. And besides, Iron Dome is part of a much wider network of Israeli missile defence systems and it would take any army, not just the Ukrainians – whose air-defences are still based on old Soviet systems – years to fully integrate it and make it operational.

There are, of course, other Israeli weapon systems which haven’t achieved Iron Dome’s mythical status, both for air defence and anti-tank defence, on which Ukrainian soldiers could be trained quickly and would be devastatingly effective against the Russians. Ukraine isn’t about to get them either, as since the Georgia war, Israel has refrained from selling arms to countries in confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And that policy is not about to change. At least not just yet. 

For many years now, and under three different prime ministers, Israel’s leadership has suffered from a combination of awe and fear of the Russian president. The events of the past three weeks are slowly leading to a reassessment, but for now at least, Israel is going to make do with humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine. Nothing resembling weapons. For now, it is making a virtue of its forced neutrality.

So what else can Israel do for Ukraine? 

l The answer depends on who you’re asking in the upper echelons of Israel’s government and when. In the nearly two weeks that have elapsed since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s surprise Shabbat visit to Mr Putin in Moscow, there has been a range of messages discreetly briefed to journalists about the nature of the Israeli diplomatic effort and if it can even be called that.

The only thing that is clear at this point is that Mr Bennett did use his unique standing as Israel’s leader to personally engage with both Mr Putin and Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky at a level no other foreign leader could reach. His willingness to put himself out there in an attempt to help any peace negotiation is admirable. But no-one can yet say for sure if there is any hope for some kind of a ceasefire that will lead to a peace agreement. 

As one Israeli diplomat said this week: “We know what it’s like when both sides have a clear interest in a ceasefire, but due to circumstances, including public opinion, the war goes on and on.” As this column is being written, there are serious reports of a ceasefire deal on the table. But no-one can say at this point whether Mr Putin has given up on his ambition to snuff out Ukrainian independence or whether Mr Zelensky will make extremely painful concessions on Ukraine’s sovereignty, in order to avoid even worse consequences. If a deal is indeed reached in the coming days, Mr Bennett’s role in reaching one will have been not insignificant. But just like many others, it could turn out that he too has been played by Mr Putin. 

Meanwhile, there are other things Israelis are doing in Ukraine.  

The closest border crossing from Kyiv to Poland has become increasingly congested since the beginning of the invasion, and Russian missiles have fallen around the main road. So the less popular south-eastern exit to Moldova has become more crowded. The Moldovan capital of Cisinau (Kishinev) has become a hub for a great multitude of representatives of Jewish organisations, as well as freelance rescue “experts”, ranging from shadowy Israeli security types to a bunch of young men from Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, who boarded a plane on their own initiative “because we heard people were dying in the streets and we needed to come and save lives”.

With no lack of volunteers, not everyone got the kind of activity they expected. 

“I thought we would be helping refugees cross the border,” complained another yeshiva student who turned up in Cisinau, this one from Jerusalem. “Instead, I’ve spent the last four days working in a makeshift kitchen preparing them meals.” 

On the more professional side of the refugee relief operations were the delegations of Israeli doctors from Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, who flew out and set up a clinic in a line of green tents opposite the old shul, which now functions as a soup kitchen. Next week, an Israeli field hospital is scheduled to start work in western Ukraine, as a joint venture of the government and Sheba Medical Center. 

“The lengths that Jewish people from all over the world will go to help Jews in trouble is a truly wonderful thing to behold,” says Hillel Cohen, an Israeli Breslav Hassid who has lived for the last 20 years in Ukraine and now heads the Hatzalah Ukraine organisation. He has spent the last three weeks on rescue missions, helping everyone from isolated Holocaust survivors to babies born to surrogate mothers, personally getting dozens of people out of the war zone and organising the rescue of hundreds of others. “So many people have helped me and others have joined in the rescue operations,” he says. “But when the politics begin, it’s unsufferable.” 

Another key figure in the rescue operations in Ukraine preferred to speak anonymously and was even more blunt. “There’s too many Jewish organisations working right now in Ukraine that don’t have the expertise or the knowledge. Worse than that, some of them have narrow political and personal interests. I’m talking about Israeli parties that are trying to prove to voters with family in Ukraine that they are the ones helping them. Even worse are the Jewish organisations and leaders who worked, and in some cases are still working, for the interests of pro-Putin oligarchs, but who are now trying to mend their reputation, though they have no credibility to work now in Ukraine. 

“I don’t want to name any names at this point, because it could jeopardise the good work that is being done, and we’re talking about people’s lives who are in danger right now. But once this war is over, there will have to be a reckoning.”

March 17, 2022 11:57

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