The interception of the Iranian-funded Fajr-5 rocket — and more than 400 other rockets — played a key role in the truce reached the following week, gave Israel bragging rights for sticking with a defense system that faced sharp domestic criticism, and is all but certain to redefine how the Jewish state and its adversaries fight in the future. For now, Iron Dome, the highest-profile component of Israel’s multi-layered missile defense system, has exceeded expectations and is widely seen as a technological breakthrough.
“It was really a miracle,” said Zvika Haimovich, the Israeli air force colonel who runs the system, noting that the battery that destroyed the Fajr-5 had been deployed to Tel Aviv only the day before. “It was an amazing process.”
Iron Dome is arguably the only undisputed victor of Israel’s latest siege on Gaza militants, which left much of the Mediterranean enclave in ruins but has boosted the standing of the militant groups based there. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was all praise as he hosted outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Pentagon last week.
“Iron Dome performed, I think it’s fair to say, remarkably well during the recent escalation,” Panetta said. After noting that the United States has helped finance the system, he added: “Iron Dome does not start wars. It helps prevent wars.”
A difficult start
The system’s prodigy status today belies its controversial origins.
The threat of rocket attacks has loomed large in Israel for more than a decade. The country’s outgunned neighboring adversaries — Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia — began firing rockets at Israel the last decade, putting millions of Israeli civilians in the line of fire.
During Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah militants fired about 4,000 rockets, killing 44 Israelis and temporarily displacing thousands. Gaza-based militant groups have fired thousands of rockets at populated areas in southern Israel since 2002, a military campaign that the territory’s leaders have embraced as an alternative to negotiations toward a two-state solution.
Under intense domestic pressure to stop the rocket attacks, Israel’s Defense Ministry began developing Iron Dome in 2007. Skeptics in Israel and Washington abounded, said Uzi Rubin, who ran Israel’s missile defense system during the 1990s. Israelis who lived through the 1991 Gulf War recalled the failings of the Patriot missile defense system, which could not stop Iraqi Scud missiles.