Israel's Iron Dome put to the test in more ways than one amid intense fighting with Palestinian militants

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Israel's Iron Dome interceptors, left, rise in response to rockets fired from northern Gaza, May 14, 2021.
  • Israel's primary defence against Hamas rockets is the Iron Dome system.
  • Around 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel over a period of just 10 days, according to the IDF.
  • In addition to rockets, Iron Dome has also intercepted drones in combat for the first time.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Israel's skies are defended by Iron Dome, an air-defense system that is being put to the test in the current conflict with Palestinian militant groups by not only unusually heavy rocket fire but also by other threats it has never faced in combat before.

The Israel Defense Force reports that over a period of just 10 days, Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces in Gaza have fired 4,000 Qassam rockets at Israel.

For comparison, over the course of the intense 50-day conflict in 2014, 4,881 rockets were fired, according to UN investigators.

The IDF says that Iron Dome has successfully intercepted roughly 90% of the incoming rockets considered potential threats.

In a first for the system, Iron Dome has also intercepted unmanned aerial vehicles in combat. Iron Dome has so far intercepted five Hamas drones since the fighting started earlier this month, the IDF told Insider.

Israel's Iron Dome is a short-range air-defense system designed to intercept rockets, artillery, and mortars. The system has been in use since 2011 and has helped reduce casualties from rocket attacks against Israeli cities.

The air-defense system was developed by Israeli defense firms Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and is part of a tiered defense system including other assets like Arrow and Patriot batteries.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced in March the completion of upgrades to Iron Dome that would allow it to defend against a more diverse collection of aerial threats.

During the upgrade process, the defense system was tested against a variety of threats including rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Iron Dome is designed to eliminate aerial threats at ranges out to a little over 40 miles in any weather conditions. Each Iron Dome battery consists of three to four launchers, each carrying 20 highly maneuverable Tamir interceptors, and a battlefield radar.

Israel has at least 10 batteries deployed around the country. There may be more, as there were plans to deploy 15 batteries.

While the system is extremely effective, "there is no hermetic solution," Avi Mayer, a former IDF spokesman, told Insider recently.

"There may indeed be a situation in which these systems are overwhelmed," he said. "We certainly hope we don't reach that point, but I think that if we reach that point, it would be extraordinarily dangerous, not only for Israel, but for Palestinians as well."

"What people don't understand is that the Iron Dome system not only spares Israeli lives, but many Palestinian lives as well," he said, suggesting that Israel can show more restraint because most incoming rockets are not making it through.

The IDF declined to comment on how Iron Dome affects the military's strategic thinking, but IDF spokeswoman Capt. Libby Weiss told Insider that she thought that "we would be in a very different conflict" if Israel didn't have Iron Dome.

"We are, of course, extremely grateful that it exists," Mayer said. "We can only shudder to think about how many lives would have been lost if it didn't."

Ian Williams, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider that "the hope" with Iron Dome is that it will have a stabilizing affect.

"If you can alleviate the pressure from the rocket attacks through missile defense, it allows more space for diplomacy. It allows Israel to not send in troops so early. It slows the need for Israel to retaliate," he said.

"The flip side of the coin is you can say that Iron Dome allows Israel to be much more aggressive because they can withstand Hamas rocket attacks," Williams added, telling Insider that "it is hard to prove" which is the case.

Some of the rockets launched at Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have made it through Israel's impressive defenses, with some rockets scoring direct hits on civilian centers.

In response to one recent strike on a neighborhood, the IDF stated that it "will not let this terror go unanswered."

Fire and smoke rise over in Gaza City after Israeli strikes, May 18, 2021.

Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on targets in Gaza since the fighting began, resulting in both combatant and civilian casualties.

Scenes of destruction within Gaza coupled with the reports of civilian casualties recall the horrors of the 2014 Gaza War in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. More than half were civilians.

An IDF spokeswoman previously told Insider that "when it comes to our practices in the strip, we are obviously very concerned about the impact on the civilian population within Gaza."

The challenge, she explained, is that Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces operate in and around civilian infrastructure in a densely populated area, making it difficult for Israeli forces to target Hamas and ensure its own defense without occasionally negatively affecting civilians.

Al-Sharouk tower is surrounded by fire and smoke as it collapses during an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, May 12, 2021.

International pressure is mounting as the death toll grows, with calls for a ceasefire becoming more frequent.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that he "expected a significant de-escalation" and a move forward "on the path to a ceasefire," according to a White House readout of the call.

In a subsequent statement, Netanyahu said that while he appreciates "the support of the American president," but he is "determined to continue this operation until its aim is met," with the aim being the return of "calm and security" to Israel.

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