How Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system works

Hamas launches first rockets in seven years towards Jerusalem

A missile is launched by an 'Iron Dome' battery in the Gaza strip
A missile is launched by an ‘Iron Dome’ battery in the Gaza strip
(Image credit: David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

Hamas has launched rocket strikes against Israel amid rising tensions in Jerusalem triggered by the eviction of six Palestinian families from a disputed neighbourhood.

Jerusalem residents reported hearing air-raid sirens shortly after 6pm local time, after which an initial burst of seven rockets, one of which was intercepted by the country’s “Iron Dome” defence system, were launched towards southern Israel.

The Israeli army said “at least 50 rockets were fired” in total, The National reports, while the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad also “claimed to have fired more than 30 rockets into Israel”. No casualties were reported following the strikes.

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Retaliatory attacks on Gaza by the Israeli military killed at least 20 Palestinians, including nine children.

What is ‘Iron Dome’?

Iron Dome is an air defence system used by Israel to intercept and destroy short-range rockets, artillery shells and mortars fired from distances of up to 45 miles, to protect civilian areas in the path of such projectiles.

How does it work?

It is a three-piece system of interceptor batteries that shoot rockets out of the sky. A radar tracks the rocket as it is fired across the border into Israel, and then advanced software predicts the rocket's trajectory. The information it provides is used to guide Tamir interceptor missiles, which are fired from the ground to blow the rocket into harmless pieces in the sky.

How long has Israel been using it?

Iron Dome, built by the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, was first used in March 2011 and made its first successful intervention the following month, when it intercepted a Grad rocket fired from Gaza. Jerusalem decided to build the system after a war with Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006, when 4,000 rockets rained down on northern Israel, killing 44.

How much does it cost to run?

Each interception rocket costs around $95,000 (£67,000). Due to the cost, Israel usually uses them only against rockets destined for residential areas, rather than those headed for open ground.

The cost of rebuilding infrastructure damaged by rockets can often exceed that of using the Iron Dome. The US has part-funded the system, pledging $429m (£303m) towards the programme.

How effective is it?

After Israel clashed with Hamas during November 2012, Israeli officials claimed the system intercepted up to 85% of the rockets fired from Gaza, although that number has been called into question.

Some analysts in Israel have pointed out that as most rockets are invisible to the naked eye when in the sky, what is shown to the public could simply be footage of the Iron Dome missiles self-destructing in mid-air.

Bur other analysts state there is “no doubt” that the system works. And Time magazine’s defence expert Mark Thompson said at the time the “lack of Israeli casualties suggests Iron Dome is the most effective, most tested missile shield the world has ever seen.”

Are there any drawbacks?

Apart from the risk of injury from falling shrapnel, some have suggested that the shield creates political risks by giving Israeli politicians a sense of invulnerability, allowing them to pursue a policy of “conflict management” rather than looking for lasting peace.

“Iron Dome has altered the calculus of Israel’s political echelons in ways they have yet to understand,” a former senior Israeli official tells The Economist. “It allows Israel to resist internal public and military pressure for a quick end to the conflict, and keep bombing Gaza.”

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