Israel has deployed an Iron Dome rocket interceptor outside a Gaza border town that has borne the brunt of Palestinian shelling attacks, posing a new test for the fledgling system underwritten by Washington.
Rolled out in March after a rushed production, Iron Dome won plaudits from US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon for downing eight out of nine Katyusha-style rockets launched at two southern Israeli cities over the course of a day.
The movement this week of an Iron Dome unit to Sderot, just 4 km from the Gaza Strip, signalled readiness to deal with shorter-range rockets and mortars in the face of scepticism from some independent experts about the system’s capabilities.
“Iron Dome has passed field trials for threats with ranges of between 4 kilometres to 40 kilometres, so this deployment tests the lower-most end of that spectrum,” said Uzi Rubin, a missile designer who consults for Israel’s Defence Ministry.
Noting the recent ebb in violence along the frontier of Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza, Rubin said: “Let’s hope action by Iron Dome is not required. But as a rule, Israel does not bring systems that are not operational into a war zone.”
Disclosing the deployment on Thursday, a military source said it was part of a “rotation” of Israel’s two Iron Domes while more of the $50 million (30 million pounds) batteries are prepared.
Israel wants between 10 and 15 units to defend its Palestinian and Lebanese fronts.
The Pentagon said last week it planned to help Israel buy four new Iron Domes after the U.S. Congress budgeted $203.8 million in funding assistance for the system in fiscal 2011.
Seeing Iron Dome sent first in March and April to Beersheba and Ashkelon, residents of Sderot had accused the government of neglecting their defences in favour of the industrial cities, whose inland locations were harder to hit from coastal Gaza.
“It makes me feel safer, no question there, because I’ve seen how the rockets explode above,” a Sderot shop-keeper, who gave his name only as Rami, told Reuters on Thursday, referring to television footage of Iron Dome’s shoot-downs on April 7.
But another resident, Sasson Salah, doubted whether Iron Dome’s radar-guided interceptor missiles would be quick enough to “solve the 15-second problem” — the flight time of a mortar bomb or crude Qassam rocket fired at Sderot from northeast Gaza.
Hamas joined smaller guerrilla groups in the recent round of fighting with Israel, but has largely held fire since signing a power-share accord a month ago with the rival, Western-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Seeking to play down Iron Dome’s enhancement of Israel’s already superior arsenal, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The new Israeli technology to fight the rockets of the resistance will fail. The militants are able to face any Israeli security measure.”