Just hours after Israel deployed one of its Iron Dome antimissile batteries in Tel Aviv on Saturday, the system’s indicators lit up with alarming news: two rockets launched from Gaza were heading for the city.
In the span of seconds, the Iron Dome’s electronic sensors analyzed the trajectory of the rockets and determined that one of them was headed for a built-up area of the city. Two missiles darted out of the system’s mobile launcher, painting white streaks across the sky and colliding with the rocket somewhere above Israel’s urban center.
The interception was one of more than 300 since the surge in fighting between Israel and the Islamic Hamas group last week. Though the number represents about one-third of the total rockets Palestinians have launched at Israel, Israeli officials are viewing it as a huge achievement.
Iron Dome batteries are not deployed in every area where rockets have been fired and don’t try to intercept the ones that are headed for open areas. The actual success rate of Iron Dome so far has been around 88 percent, according to officials.
The figure is astonishing for a system that Israel developed only recently—with generous U.S. financing—and that had its share of skeptics.
It has surprised even its developers.
“It’s performed better than I anticipated,” said Arieh Herzog, who oversaw Iron Dome’s development as head of Israel’s missile-defense program at the Defense Ministry until earlier this year.
“When a system like this is relatively new, it usually performs with quite a significant number of misses. But the results have been very good,” he told The Daily Beast.
The implications are significant for Israel, which faces a missile threat from other directions as well, including Lebanon and Iran.
Countries with border conflicts of their own are watching the performance of Iron Dome closely and have already expressed interest in buying missile batteries from Israel.
But the technology is probably not the game changer that some Israelis have suggested. The system appears to be less effective at very close ranges—when rockets are fired at Israeli communities bordering Gaza, for example. Even at more optimal ranges, some rockets have defeated the technology, including one that seriously wounded Israelis in the southern town of Sha’ar Hanegev on Sunday.
And the existence of Iron Dome seems to have prodded Hamas to increase the rocket launchings and expand its radius of attack to areas Israel would not have thought to deploy the missile battery, including Jerusalem.
In the past 24 hours alone, Palestinians have launched scores of rockets at Israel, even as troops gather along the border for a possible ground invasion of Gaza. Israeli airstrikes overnight killed nine Palestinians, including three children, according to hospital sources, raising the death toll in Gaza to more than 50.
“This doesn’t solve all the problems,” says Reuven Pedatzur, who directs the center for strategic studies at Netanya College and has voiced skepticism about Iron Dome in an opinion piece in Israeli newspapers.
In a conversation with The Daily Beast, Pedatzur admitted being “pleasantly surprised” by the performance of system over the past week.
But he said the price of operating the system was prohibitively high. Each Iron Dome missile costs around $50,000. Israel fires at least two every time it targets a rocket.
Most of the rockets the system is designed to intercept are manufactured in Gaza at a fraction of the price—sometimes for just a few hundred dollars.
The contrast reflects a broader disproportion in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But other analysts say it’s more relevant to compare the price of the missile with the cost of the damage it prevents.
Lazar Berman, a Middle East military analyst who has written about missile defense, says the real value of Iron Dome is that it allows Israeli leaders to be more measured in times of conflict.
“If only 10 percent of the ... rockets intercepted had struck in Israeli cities, Israel might be looking at 50 or 60 dead right now. If just one of those had hit a school bus or kindergarten, there would be no choice but to initiate a ground invasion,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Now that Tel Aviv is under fire as well, the chances of a rocket causing mass casualties or hitting an important building are much higher, and the battery there seems to be doing its job well thus far.”