Israel’s Iron Dome, explained by an expert

By now, you’ve probably seen the videos: dark skies, illuminated by exploding balls of light, like alien spaceships doing battle or a terrifying fireworks display, scored by air raid sirens.

This is the view of Israel’s Iron Dome, the aerial defense system the country uses to intercept incoming short-range rockets. The intensifying conflict this week between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militia in control of Gaza, has offered a renewed glimpse of the Iron Dome in action.

The system has been in place for about a decade, developed with heavy financial and technical backing from the United States. It is, according to Israeli officials, about 90 percent effective at blocking the short-range rockets commonly used by Hamas and other groups in the region.

The Iron Dome gives Israel what Jean-Loup Samaan, a research affiliate with the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore who has studied Israel’s missile defense, called an “insurance policy” — it reassures citizens and protects against loss of life and property damage.

But Israel’s ability to defend against these rocket attacks hasn’t altered how it responds to them, with airstrikes and artillery fire on Gaza or anywhere else rockets may be coming from. Palestinian civilians frequently bear the brunt of these strikes.

On the other side, faced with a defense like the Iron Dome, groups like Hamas try to overwhelm the system, launching dozens if not hundreds of rockets, knowing most will be intercepted and never hit their intended targets but hoping that if they send enough, at least a few will. As of Friday, according to Israeli officials, militants in Gaza fired 2,200 rockets, with the Iron Dome intercepting 85 to 90 percent of rockets that threaten people or infrastructure.

All of this raises questions about how the Iron Dome has — and hasn’t — changed the nature of the conflict. I spoke with Samaan to find out more about how both Israel and militant groups like Hamas see the defense system; why, despite having such robust protection from rockets, Israel still responds to them with overwhelming force; and whether having the system makes peace more or less likely.