ASHKELON, Israel — Israel's newest weapon sits squarely along the border of this southern Israeli town. The Iron Dome, a rocket interception system built by Israel, guards many of the cities that lie within the range of rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The system, considered among the most advanced in the world, fires a missile to intercept incoming rockets after it gauges whether a rocket will fall in an area where it can cause damage. It is, according to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a "game changer."
When violence flared along the Israel-Gaza border earlier this month, the effectiveness of the Iron Dome was tested, and Israeli officials couldn't have been more pleased.
Of the approximately 250 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza, 166 entered Israel's airspace, officials said. Of those, 74 would have struck civilian areas or buildings. The Iron Dome system intercepted 56 before they could land, a success rate of 75 percent. Israeli officials argue, however, that the Iron Dome also identified rockets that were headed for open areas, such as fields, and let them land harmlessly. Factoring those in, Israeli military officials argue that only 18 of the 166 landed anywhere on target, giving the system a success rate of nearly 90 percent.
Israeli military officers and politicians said the success of the system gave Israel "diplomatic maneuverability" that it didn't have previously.
Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz described the Iron Dome's impact as a "serious and historical military change."
Gantz said the ability to protect Israeli population centers from rocket attacks removed one of the key factors that the military had always seen as a limitation on its operations: what the likelihood was of reprisals.
Now, Gantz added, the Israeli military can operate relatively undeterred without concern about rocket attacks. The barrage of rockets earlier this month was triggered by the targeted killing in a drone strike of Zuhair al Qaissi, a senior member of the Popular Resistance Committee, an umbrella group that includes militants from various Palestinian factions.
Iron Dome is just the beginning, Gantz said. While it focuses on smaller rockets with a relatively short range, such as those from the Gaza Strip, Israel is installing other systems that are intended to stop larger missiles, fired from farther away.
David's Sling, a system built in conjunction with the U.S. military, is designed to intercept medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles, such as those possessed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Another system, the Arrow, also developed with the United States, would intercept ballistic missiles fired from hundreds of miles away.
Israeli military officials said they hoped the systems would deter militants from firing rockets.
"If they know we have the ability to stop their rockets from hitting their targets, they might abandon this method," said one Israel Defense Forces officer, who spoke to reporters recently on the condition of anonymity. "In the long run we can hope for this."
Already though, the impact on Israeli residents of the south has been felt. Writing in The Jerusalem Post, military analyst Yaakov Katz said that, "Israel's political leadership is under less pressure from the public that is under the rocket fire. As a result, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak feel a need to escalate the operation."
Meira Cohanim, a 56-year-old resident of Ashkelon, said she felt comforted that the military was trying to intercept missiles from Gaza, even if the system wasn't 100 percent effective.
"Before, you had this feeling that the rockets were just pounding away," she said. "And they would land wherever they did and your home was hit or it wasn't. Now there is a feeling that something might be changing; we might be protected."
Iron Dome, she said, might give the Israel Defense Forces more leeway to operate in Gaza, but she hoped that it wouldn't mean another war.
"The people in Gaza don't have Iron Dome or even bomb shelters. I know some people here think it's good for us to attack them, but there are innocents and children there, too," she said. "I hope Iron Dome brings peace, not one-sided war."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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