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What Gaza fighting taught Israel about possible war with Iran

The truce is strained when Israeli forces fire on a protest by Palestinians seeking access to fertile land close to the Gaza border. NBC's Ayman Moyheldin reports

News analysis

ASHKELON, Israel — Israel's warplanes and Iron Dome anti-rocket missiles have been facing south for eight days, but their message was heard loud and clear to the north — by leaders in Iran and Lebanon. 

The fighting against Hamas in Gaza, carried out by mostly missiles and planes, can be seen as a war game for what could happen if Israel moved to take out Iran's nuclear program, a much larger action that could result in both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran firing rockets toward Tel Aviv.


And violent as it has been, one Israeli general described Hamas, when comparing its might to Hezbollah and Iran, as a rain drop in a storm.

In other words, there's worse to come if Israel attacks Iran, much worse.

Israel declares mission accomplished, Hamas claims victory

So, what, if any, lessons did Israel learn that can be applied to Iran?

Homefront
The most obvious concerns the endurance of Israel's "homefront," which is simply a military, dehumanizing term for "the people." Verdict: good.  

There were almost no complaints by the people that they had to spend so long in bomb shelters. Southern towns like Ofakim, Ashkelon, Beer Sheva and even Ashdod closer to the center were attacked about a 150 times each in seven days. That means the people rushed to their shelters as the sirens wailed on average 21 times a day.

Yet despite the discomfort and fear, most people did not call for an end to Israel's assault on Gaza. They wanted it to last as long as necessary to stop all rockets from Gaza in the future.

Iron Dome
The Iron Dome, Israel's home-made anti-rocket missile system, Israel's key defense against rockets from Gaza prevented carnage. Verdict: Very good with an official hit rate of 84 percent.

According to Israeli army figures, Islamist militants in Gaza fired 1,506 rockets at Israel in eight days. Eight hundred and seventy-five fell harmlessly into open areas like fields and the sea. The Iron Dome is programmed to let those alone and to intercept only rockets that would hit urban areas.

Shops and stores are reopening and a semblance of normalcy is returning to Gaza's streets after a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is put into effect. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Gaza.

Iron Dome intercepted 421 rockets and 58 rockets actually got through, killing three civilians and wounding about 100 more, mostly lightly.

How Israel's 'Iron Dome' intercepts incoming rockets in Gaza conflict

Shelters
The small number of casualties was because a few people did not use Israel's second defense layer, the bomb shelters. Verdict: Very good. 

Nobody in a shelter was hurt. The three killed did not do as they were advised and stood on their balcony watching the action. A rocket shot right through the window, splattering them against the walls. 

But while the world has been watching the war in the south, the threat from the north is much bigger. Israeli intelligence sources say Hamas and partners in Gaza had 10,000 rockets. Hezbollah in South Lebanon has between 100,000 and 200,000, including longer range rockets that carry heavier explosive warheads, according to Israeli military analysts.

The Iron Dome could be effective against several fired at the same time and even a dozen or two, but if hundreds of long-range rockets are fired, for instance, at Israel's largest population center Tel Aviv, it is guaranteed that many would get through, causing havoc, heavy damage and possibly loss of life.

Israel needs America
How long could the homefront, or the people, withstand such an onslaught, especially if compounded by rockets from Iran?

The answer is not clear, but what is clear is that such an attack from Lebanon would provoke instant and massive Israeli retaliation.

That leads to another lesson, or rather byproduct, of the assault on Hamas — Hamas may already be eliminated from the equation of a post-Iran strike. Would Hamas fight for Iran after the punishment it received in the past week and the depletion of its rocket supply and rocket-manufacturing ability? Nobody knows. 

Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Two sides exchange deadly airstrikes, rocket attacks.


Shot dead, dragged through the streets: The fate of an alleged spy in Gaza

More likely is that Islamic Jihad, which is armed, trained and financed by Tehran, would fire its rockets at Israel, even if Hamas tried to stop them. So another lesson for Israel: Take out Islamic Jihad in Gaza — and that could lead to conflict with Hamas anyway.

But as political and military leaders here analyze the results and lessons of the past week, the clearest lesson is probably this, and it is hardly new: Israel needs the United States.

It was President Barack Obama who insisted on a cease-fire, who called Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi three times in 24 hours, and who had several calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shepherding both through the difficult process of reaching an agreement.

Americans tied to Israel caught in the chaos of Gaza conflict

The fact is, Israel could not have carried out an invasion of Gaza without Washington's support. And as Obama made clear in his talks with Netanyahu, the United States prefers no ground invasion. And Israel agreed.  

So at the moment, Israel has Western support for latest action in Gaza. This support would evaporate if it decided unilaterally to invade Gaza. 

If the cease-fire holds for 24 hours, Israel will start talking about lifting border control on Gaza. In the meantime, Israeli ground troops remain mobilized in case Hamas resumes rocket attacks from Gaza. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

But if newly re-elected Obama says the same about an attack on Iran, only more forcibly, will Israel agree again?

That is a different issue. Israel's homefront and defensive shield give Israel's freedom to act, but the bit questions are, for how long? And against what strength enemy?

And critical will be this: Will Obama be for or against?

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List", "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel".

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