Israel's Iron Dome missile defense so far passing battle test

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JERUSALEM -- An abiding image of former Israel Defense Minister Amir Peretz was a photograph of him peering at a military drill -- with the black lens caps still on his binoculars. Mr. Peretz resigned months after the 2006 war in Lebanon, which was widely regarded as a failure.

Yet on Sunday, as rockets fired by Gaza militants streaked toward Tel Aviv, Ashdod and other Israeli cities, Mr. Peretz, a resident of the rocket-battered border town of Sderot, was being hailed as a defense visionary for having had the foresight while in office to face down myriad skeptics and push for the development of Iron Dome, Israel's unique anti-rocket interceptor system.

The naysayers now are few. In the five days since Israel began its fierce assault on the militant infrastructure in Hamas-run Gaza, after years of rocket fire against southern Israel, Iron Dome has successfully intercepted more than 300 rockets fired at densely populated areas, with a success rate of 80 percent to 90 percent, top officials said. Developed with significant U.S. funding and undergoing its ultimate battle test, the Iron Dome system has saved many lives, protected property and proved to be a strategic game changer, experts said.

Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured a newly deployed mobile unit near Tel Aviv on Sunday and described Iron Dome as "probably the most technologically impressive achievement in recent years in Israel." He called its performance "almost perfect."

By preventing mass casualties, experts said, Israel's leaders have retained public support for the continuing operation and have had more time to weigh a possible ground incursion.

Three Israelis were killed last week in a rocket attack on Kiryat Malachi, and on Sunday two Israelis were injured in Ofakim when a rocket crashed near their car. But casualties on the Israeli side have been kept low by the Iron Dome system and the fact that most Israelis have followed the instructions of the Home Front Command, taking shelter in the 15 to 90 seconds they have between the warning sirens and the landing of a rocket.

About a decade ago after primitive rockets fired from Gaza began crashing into Sderot, the Israeli defense industries' research and development teams started working on defending against short- and midrange rockets that now travel 12 to 50 miles.

Soon after the monthlong war in Lebanon in summer 2006, when the Lebanese Hezbollah organization fired thousands of Katyusha rockets and paralyzed northern Israel, Mr. Peretz, officials said, budgeted roughly $200 million for the first two Iron Dome mobile units.

Iron Dome shoots down rockets with a radar-guided missile known as Tamir. Because each interceptor missile costs at least $40,000 to $50,000, the system is designed to aim only at rockets headed for populated areas and to ignore those destined for open ground outside cities and towns.

Israeli officials say the cost is offset by the lives and property that are saved.

About three years ago, Israel received $204 million from the United States to help pay for the country's third through sixth mobile units. In February, Israel again approached the Obama administration for urgent support for four more batteries. They received $70 million immediately, and an additional $610 million has been pledged over the next three years, according to a senior official in Israel's missile defense organization.

Dennis Ross, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on Iran and the Middle East and now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview that the funds came despite "a very stringent environment for assistance, where it was being cut across the board," and that they were "emblematic" of the administration's commitment to Israel's security.

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