ASHKELON, Israel—On Sunday afternoon, as air-raid sirens sounded across this southern Israeli city, people abandoned cars in the middle of the road and ran to seek shelter. Hiding under a tree, a man tried to comfort his teenage daughter.
So far, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fire from the Gaza Strip has managed to kill 10 Israelis. Some 188 Palestinians, including 55 children, were killed since Israeli strikes on Gaza began in response to these barrages. The lopsided casualty toll, however, isn’t due to a lack of Hamas trying. Its rockets have been aimed relentlessly at Israeli population centers.
“If it wasn’t for the Iron Dome, all these rockets would have been falling on our heads and we would be counting our dead in the hundreds and not in the dozens,” said Moti Hetzroni, 77, an Ashkelon retiree, as he enjoyed a respite in the shelling to meet a friend in an outdoor cafe. Days earlier, one of the Hamas rockets that the Iron Dome didn’t intercept landed about 100 yards from his home.
Deployed since 2011 and built and maintained with $1.6 billion in U.S. funding, the Iron Dome system consists of a network of connected batteries and radars that fire at rockets that seem to be heading to populated areas and ignore those likely to fall into empty fields. While the system has been used in previous conflicts with Hamas, the Palestinian group has never fired as many rockets simultaneously.
“What Hamas is doing now is trying to challenge the system. They thought that Iron Dome would stop functioning, but this didn’t happen,” said Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
Iron Dome is managing to destroy some 90% of the incoming volleys, in line with expected performance, according to the Israeli military.
“Everyone has been quietly impressed by the ability of Iron Dome to handle the sheer volume,” said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “It’s been a good demonstration of how the system has rapidly improved to become the best short-range system on the planet.”
Several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, India and other nations in Asia have looked into buying the Iron Dome system, and the current performance is likely to make such sales more appealing, analysts said. Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, UAE and Bahrain, face a comparable threat from rockets and drones operated by Yemen’s Houthi movement that, like Hamas, also is backed by Iran.
“I suspect this will give Israeli missile defense systems a boost on the international market because it is certainly visually spectacular,” said Justin Bronk, research fellow for air power at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London.
Iron Dome systems have been developed by Israel’s Rafael and IAI defense companies, and a version for the U.S. military has been produced in collaboration with Raytheon Technologies Corp. The Iron Dome has yet to be deployed by the U.S.
A seaside town of 145,000, Ashkelon is the nearest large Israeli population center to Gaza, only 8 miles away, and it takes just a few seconds for Hamas’s rockets to reach it. The city has been targeted by about one-fifth of all the rockets fired from Gaza in the current round of the conflict, and has lost three residents, including a five-year-old child.
In some of these barrages, 75 rockets have been lobbed at Ashkelon in the space of 10 or 15 minutes, said Maj.- Gen. Uri Gordin, who leads Israel’s Home Front Command. “This is an extremely high rate of rocket launching and it’s very difficult to tackle,” he said.
One part of town that Hamas has succeeded in hitting was the City shopping and residential complex of high rises, where two rockets slammed May 11, in a sign of how difficult it is to protect at such a short distance.
“We’ve been sitting in shelters all week, and have just come out to get some food,” said Lena Gerasimova, 69, as she walked Sunday with a bag of eggs and bread from a discount supermarket that reopened next door to a charred impact site.
“People are scared, they just run out to buy what they need for a week and then stay home,” said Almog Dror, 26, who sells cigarettes and cannabis derivatives in a shop just up the road, next to another rocket-hit building.
The limited nature of Israeli casualties, however, means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so far at least, isn’t facing public pressure to launch a ground invasion of Gaza—an operation that would likely exponentially increase the death toll in the current round of the conflict, particularly among Palestinians.
“If we didn’t have the Iron Dome and this kind of rocket fire went on, tomorrow there would be no Gaza,” said Ohad Margi, 35, an Ashkelon electrician who had a narrow escape when a rocket blew up nearby.
In peacetime, the Iron Dome system usually utilizes two missiles at a time to intercept incoming rockets, but now that Israel and Hamas are in a high-intensity conflict Israel has shifted to using one interceptor per one rocket, an Israeli Air Force general said. “You don’t intercept 140 missiles with 280,” the general said, describing Israel’s response to the largest barrage so far, 140 missiles that were aimed at Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Iron Dome now also has the ability to down Hamas drones, so far hitting three of them, including one on Saturday that headed for Reim, where an Israeli division headquarters is located. The Israeli general said the adjustment of the system, targeting a drone that can move horizontally, is a significant technological achievement. Israel, he added, hasn’t asked the U.S. for more Iron Dome interceptor missiles but has ordered the country’s own defense industry to increase production.
The system has been built for a much larger-scale potential conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, the general said, and therefore the military doesn’t assess it in danger of running out of interceptor missiles anytime soon. Hezbollah has some 130,000 rockets, while Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad had 13,000 rockets in Gaza a week ago, according to Israeli military estimates.
Iron Dome has the capacity to launch some 800 interceptors at a given time, making it hard for Hamas to overwhelm the system, Mr. Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute said. The current success, however, doesn’t mean that Israel should be complacent about the far more potent threat posed by Hezbollah’s arsenal.
“There is a danger that some people are taking the current performance of the system and reading it to mean that it changes the equation between Israel and Hezbollah,” Mr. Bronk said. “It really doesn’t, just because Hezbollah could overload the system pretty quickly and fairly easily if they really wanted to.”
—Dov Lieber in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8