Iron Dome deflects 90% of Palestinian rockets, Israel claims

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 10:00 p.m.

A missile defense shield jointly developed by the United States and Israel is intercepting nearly 90 percent of Palestinian rockets that appear to be a threat to populated areas, Israel claimed on Friday while making clear that it is not now seeking U.S. military help.

The conflict that began Wednesday is the largest test yet of the Iron Dome missile defense system designed to protect southern Israeli towns from rockets fired from the bordering Palestinian territory of Gaza.

Israel rushed a fifth Iron Dome air defense battery into service in the Tel Aviv area on Saturday, using it within hours to shoot down a rocket fired at the coastal metropolis from the Gaza Strip.

The successful interception, witnessed by a Reuters correspondent, appeared to stretch the capabilities of the unit meant to provide coverage for Israel's biggest conurbation, which includes its main international airport, six miles inland.

Iron Dome's radars, linked with other Israeli surveillance systems, spot rocket launches from Gaza.

The detection sets off sirens in the town targeted so people can shelter while Iron Dome fires a guided interceptor missile. In the case of Tel Aviv, the military said, the alert should provide 90 seconds before the rocket closes in for impact.

On Saturday it took less than that between the wail of the siren and the explosive collision of metal on metal over a Tel Aviv beach.

The distinctive smoke cloud left behind, like an inverted teardrop, was just a few hundred yards above ground — suggesting the rocket was on its final descent when it was knocked out of the sky by one of two interceptors shot at it.

Few of the hundreds of people who had ducked-and-covered on the boardwalk looked upset about what might have been a close call. It was the third rocket launch against Tel Aviv in 48 hours without damage or casualties.

“Well, that wasn't such a big deal,” said a woman who had watched the interception while clinging for protection to the trunk of a baby palm tree on a traffic island.

Its limits were also evident on Friday, when two Palestinian rockets struck near Jerusalem, beyond the zone regularly protected by Iron Dome.

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, said it had developed the two “M-75” rockets that landed near Jerusalem. The rocket type, with a range of approximately 46 miles, had not been previously used by Hamas, although the group was known to have some longer-range rockets.

Hamas has been amassing longer-range, Iranian-built Fajr-5 rockets and appears to have used one in a fatal attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday. The rocket also has a range of up to about 46 miles, posing a threat to half of Israel's population.

Israeli officials would not specify the type of rocket that struck an apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv on Thursday, killing three people.

“When the [Gaza] operation was planned, we were very much aware of this capability, and we understood that this could happen,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “We know Hamas has been gaining capability over time, but this is the first time we've seen it used.”

The Iranian rockets are larger than the ones Hamas has traditionally used. Western intelligence officials say components are smuggled into Gaza — most likely through tunnels across the Sinai border — and assembled in small factories disguised as residences.

“We don't think they have that many more,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said of the longer-range rockets.

Israel's air assault on rocket sites inside Gaza has been largely successful, Israeli officials claimed, and the longer-range rockets that have been launched in this conflict have caused no casualties.

“They haven't caused any damage; they haven't caused any casualties,” Oren said. “It's more of a psychological issue so far.”

The United States has invested heavily in the Iron Dome, with lawmakers approving an estimated $900 million spread over several years. Its advance radar system calculates the flight path of incoming rockets and decides within seconds whether a rocket's course will lead to a populated area or empty field.

More than 400 Hamas rockets were allowed to land harmlessly because they were deemed to be of little threat, said a senior Israeli defense official.

“The result has actually been better than we expected,” the official said.

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