Sderot, Israel –This town in southern Israel has become most synonymous with rocket fire over the past decade: More than 8,000 rockets have landed here, killing 12 people and causing millions of dollars in damage.
The Israeli government has spent some $150m to build a network of bomb shelters across the town – a cost of more than $6,000 per resident.
But the situation has changed over the last 18 months, ever since Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defence system went online in mid-2011. David Bouskila, the mayor of Sderot, said just “two or three” rockets have landed since the system became operational.
“Less people have left the town, relative to Cast Lead,” he said, referring to Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza, when thousands of residents evacuated to points further north. “The majority of the missiles that aim to hit houses and families, [the Iron Dome] puts them off.”
The system has undoubtedly been a tactical success. Palestinian rockets have become far less effective at causing casualties and damage.
Equally important, though, the Iron Dome has shifted the already skewed balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.
Military analysts say it has further insulated Israel from the costs of its military operations – reducing demands for a ground invasion, but also lowering the barrier to future bombing of the occupied territories.
‘No 100 per cent solution’
The Israeli army has hyped Iron Dome’s success to the media, and it has been rewarded with a flood of positive coverage in both the local and foreign press, with correspondents praising the system with phrases like “a game-changer” and “Israel’s national hero”.
Exclusive: Iron Dome in action
Emergency sirens still blare out across southern cities on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, sending residents scrambling to shelters. But those sirens often go silent within a few seconds, followed by a muffled boom overhead, a signal for people to emerge and look for the puff of white smoke that follows an intercept.
The system uses radar and targeting software to fly its interceptors close to the incoming rockets, where they then detonate on a proximity fuse.
“It’s made a huge difference… the only problem is that people tend to become very complacent,” said George Rooks, an Ashdod resident who brought his family to watch an Iron Dome battery on Tuesday afternoon. “It has actually missed several incoming missiles to Ashdod.”
It missed one in Sderot on Tuesday as well. Ten minutes after an interview with Bouskila, a rocket slammed into a house about 100 metres away, causing minor damage and no injuries.
More than 160 rockets were fired at Israel on Tuesday, one of the largest barrages in the eight-day conflict. An Israeli soldier and a civilian were killed, the military said, bringing Israel’s death toll to five. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed.
Fourteen rockets exploded in residential areas in Israel on Tuesday, a record number since hostilities escalated last week.
Short-range rockets like the ones aimed at Sderot are more likely to find their targets, because Israel’s air defences have less time to lock onto their targets.
“There is no 100 per cent solution,” said Col. Zvika Haimovich, who commands the army’s missile-defence unit. “[There’s] just a combination between the active defence by Iron Dome and the passive defence, people running to shelters and bunkers.”
Still, the effectiveness of Palestinian rockets has plummeted in comparison to years past. The Israeli army said on Tuesday night that nearly 1,200 rockets have been fired at Israel this year, killing five people, one a soldier who was stationed near the border.
By comparison, five civilians were killed in just 150 rocket attacks in 2010.
Four hundred rockets intercepted
|A launcher fires an interceptor near Sderot [Reuters]|
The battle between Israel and Gaza has always been lopsided – an on-again, off-again war between a professional army with American-made fighter jets and drones, and militias firing unguided and largely homemade rockets.
The Israeli army said on Tuesday night that Iron Dome has shot down about 400 rockets since the Gaza operation was launched. Haimovich would not give the programme’s success rate, but an army spokesman said last week more than 90 percent of its targets were successfully shot down – a figure that is impossible to independently verify.
“The system broadened, in some respect, the freedom of the IDF,” said retired Gen. Shlomo Brom, referring to the Israeli army. “We can take decisions that are not under stress, that are not under the pressure of public opinion.
“A situation where there were a larger number of casualties … there would be public pressure on the government to move quickly to a ground invasion,” Brom said.
Some Israelis do already want a ground invasion, like many residents of Qiryat Malachi, a town in southern Israel where three people were killed in a rocket strike last week.
And the government may face further pressure if ceasefire talks with Hamas fail and casualties mount.
For now, though, many Israelis seem to agree with Yosef Raviv, another spectator at the Iron Dome battery outside of Ashdod on Tuesday. “This means the air force has time to bomb Gaza at its own pace,” he said.
Analysts here say the system could make the Israeli government more likely to approve future bombing campaigns. The rocket fire from Gaza has disrupted daily life, but it has produced relatively few casualties and little damage.
And groups opposed to Israeli occupation in Gaza will find it difficult to overcome its missile defence systems. “Smarter” projectiles could evade Iron Dome’s interceptors, but even the most sophisticated weapons in Gaza – like the Iranian-made Fajr-5, many of which were blown up by Israeli air strikes last week – are “dumb” rockets rather than guided missiles.
Brom, now a researcher at Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies, said Palestinian fighters have begun to shift their tactics in the hope of simply overwhelming the new Israeli system.
“The recent launches were salvos, instead of dispersing the launches throughout the day, which would be more logical, because it would interfere more with normal life in Israel,” he said.
“But instead they concentrated their fire in a few salvos, because they think it will be more difficult for the system to engage all of the rockets.”