Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system hailed a success
Iron Dome anti-rocket interceptor system is hailed a success after it shot down more than 300 missiles headed for Israeli towns and cities
An abiding image of former Israeli defence minister Amir Peretz was a photograph of him peering at a military drill - with the black lens caps still on his binoculars. Peretz resigned months after the 2006 war in Lebanon, which was widely regarded as a failure.
Yet this past week, as rockets fired by Gaza militants streaked towards Israeli cities, Peretz was being hailed as a defence visionary for having had the foresight while in office to push for the development of Iron Dome, Israel's unique anti-rocket interceptor system.
The naysayers now are few. In the five days of Israel's fierce assault on militant infrastructure in Hamas-run Gaza between Wednesday and Sunday, Iron Dome intercepted more than 300 rockets fired at densely populated areas, with a success rate of 80 to 90 per cent, top officials said on Sunday.
Developed with significant US funding and undergoing its ultimate battle test, the system had saved many lives, protected property and proved to be a strategic game changer, experts said.
Israeli Defence 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 had retained public support for the continuing operation, launched after years of rocket fire against southern Israel, and had gained 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 the city of Sderot, the Israeli defence industry's research and development teams started working on defending against short- and mid-range rockets that now travel 20 to 80 kilometres.
Soon after the month-long war in Lebanon in summer 2006, when the Lebanese Hezbollah organisation fired thousands of Katyusha rockets and paralysed northern Israel, Peretz, budgeted roughly US$200 million for the first two Iron Dome mobile units, officials said.
Iron Dome is a "multilayer shield" that includes the Arrow system, which is being upgraded, and the Magic Wand, now in development. When finished, the system should guard against destruction from crude, short-range rockets made in Gaza to ballistic missiles from Iran.
Iron Dome shoots down rockets with a radar-guided missile known as Tamir, which was developed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, an Israeli company.
Because each interceptor missile costs at least US$40,000, the system is designed to aim at only rockets headed for populated areas and to ignore those destined for open ground outside cities and towns.
About three years ago, Israel received US$204 million from the United States to help pay for the country's third through sixth mobile units.
In February, Israel again approached the administration of Barack Obama for urgent support for four more batteries. They received US$70 million immediately, with an additional US$610 million pledged over the next three years, a senior official in Israel's missile defence organisation said.
A defence industry official said there were hopes the system could be exported and that the more the missiles were in demand, the cheaper they would be to make.
Rafael president Yedidia Yaari, a former commander of the Israeli Navy, said on Israel Radio on Sunday that other countries were interested in the Iron Dome system, though there were "very few countries on the planet with threats such as we have".
"When I have time I'll sell to others," Yaari said. "Right now we are busy protecting the state of Israel."