Israel’s Iron Dome system, a relatively new umbrella to stop the Gaza rockets that have been raining down over southern Israel, has achieved a claimed success rate of roughly 90 percent in its most rigorous test yet.
Despite a barrage of more than 800 rockets this week, including several long-range ones targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time in decades, only three Israelis have been killed. But the high-tech system has not been as effective in addressing the other casualty of such escalations: the interruption of school, work, and family life.
“You can’t continue to live like this,” says Danny, a young Navy reservist in Ashdod whose apartment shook yesterday when a rocket hit another home in the same complex. “You want to study, but you can’t. Every five minutes you have the missiles and you have to go to the shelter. How can you finish school like that?”
He points to his sister next to him, who turned 15 yesterday, and then up to the damaged apartment, with twisted metal hanging off the front. “This is what she gets for her birthday…. It is not natural.”
$50,000 a shot
The Arab world has criticized Israel's offensive, which so far has killed 53 Palestinians. Israel has justified its Pillar of Defense operation as imperative, given the incessant rocket fire from Gaza, where the Hamas government has proved either unable or unwilling to rein in various militant factions.
The Iron Dome system – part of a multi-layered missile defense program that began about 20 years ago – enables Israel to target such militants in Gaza without risking nearly as many civilian casualties to its own people. So far, five batteries have been deployed – the last one only yesterday, two months ahead of schedule and just in time to intercept at least two rockets targeting Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city.
Each battery includes a radar detection system, a command and control center, and mobile launchers that can be repositioned as necessary. When a rocket is fired from Gaza, the batteries quickly calculate whether it is headed for a populated area or sensitive target; if so, one of the interceptors is quickly dispatched, at a reported cost of $50,000. If the rocket is headed for an open area, however, no action is taken.
Of the more than 750 rockets fired from Gaza since last week, 245 had been intercepted as of last night. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has not published the number of attempted intercepts, so it is impossible to calculate the exact success rate. But Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren as well as Israel’s former director of missile defense, Arieh Herzog, have said that the success rate of attempted intercepts is about 90 percent. That is a significant improvement over the 80 percent rate achieved when the system was first deployed in March 2011.
The deployment of Iron Dome, together with the IDF’s air strikes on Gaza, have brought a mixture of relief and hope to Israelis, says Yehudit Bar Hay, a trauma expert at the Israel Center for Victims of Terror & War, known as NATAL.
There is a “feeling that the government is at least looking at us and doing something,” says Ms. Bar Hay, who lives less than a mile from the Gaza border. “Not that we like war, but this is some kind of response that we didn’t get for these 12 years.”
That feeling that the government is doing something – most importantly, preventing casualties – has given Israel breathing room in deciding how to proceed, says veteran analyst Yossi Alpher.
"It reduces public pressure on the government to do something," Mr. Alpher says. "With the expansion of [Iron Dome] to Tel Aviv, people are feeling relatively safe and able to withstand a longer-term campaign."
Holes in Iron Dome
To be sure, there are still rockets that pierce Israel’s anti-missile umbrella. Around the corner from a huge Ashdod billboard peddling “Spikes to go” – with dagger-like high heels dangling from the fingers of a sultry model – a Gaza rocket careened into a courtyard yesterday, creating a large divot in the dirt.
Alona Bererzin, a resident walking near the freshly filled-in hole in the evening, said Iron Dome’s batteries clearly needed improving.
“They do nothing,” said Ms. Bererzin, whose apartment is located less than 75 feet from where the rocket hit. “They tried to get three of them, but they didn’t get any.”
Half an hour away in Kiryat Malachi, family members mourned one of three people killed in a Nov. 15 rocket attack. The IDF would not confirm whether the town is protected by Iron Dome, afraid of revealing its weak points to Hamas, but the deep rumblings of what residents said was an Iron Dome launcher could be heard throughout the afternoon.
Mr. Herzog, the head of Israel’s missile defense program from 1999 until January of this year, says that typically missile-defense systems have a much lower rate of success than Iron Dome. But he says it’s crucial that the system be used in tandem with bomb shelters, because “from time to time the system does not intercept what it wants to intercept.”
Lack of bomb shelters
The bomb shelter on the ground floor of the damaged Kiryat Malachi building is piled with junk, allowing space for perhaps two or three people at most. Like many of Israel’s older buildings, it lacks a mamad – a bomb shelter within one’s apartment or just outside of it, which is easier to access in the 15-90 second window that Israelis have to reach a shelter once missile sirens begin to wail.
“The big problem is that there are lots of old buildings that don’t have mamads,” says Hanna Shukrun, a resident whose daughter and 3-day-old granddaughter have come to take shelter with her. “Even without a war, it’d be a problem.”
But while the newer mamad shelters provide good protection, the routine of sirens and shelters is wearing.
“You are afraid of doing the routine things of your life, like going to the bathroom, going to take a shower, whatever,” says Ben Hay, the trauma expert.
“All your life stops,” says Mesodi Sugaker, a lifelong resident of Kiryat Malachi. “There is no school, no work…. Stores are open only until noon… Even the cows are afraid,” she and her sisters joke while enjoying tea on her balcony overlooking a local farm.
But she becomes more somber when the evening news comes on, showing a rapid montage of Iron Dome interceptors, Gaza missiles, and suffering on both sides of the border.
As Shabbat comes to a close, she takes comfort, however, in a higher power – implied in the Hebrew name for the operation, “Pillar of Cloud.” The name is a biblical reference to the divine light that guided Moses and the children of Israel through the wilderness.
“Everybody from Israel sees … He protects us,” she says, referring to God. “He’s with Israel all the time.”