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Israeli Fans Of Iron Dome No Longer Run For Cover

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Hamas militants have fired hundreds of missiles at Israel since the conflict intensified last week. Many of those missiles have fallen prey to Iron Dome, the U.S.-funded anti-missile system deployed in key areas across Israel.

In the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, guests at a wedding had barely managed to get through the hors d'oeuvres when a siren sounded warning of incoming rocket fire.

But instead of taking cover, the guests point at the sky and gawk as Israel's Iron Dome missile interceptor system explodes six Hamas rockets in midair.

The women gasp and scream in disbelief. One shouts, "We are saved," as people around her clap.

For Israelis living within the range of rocket attacks, the Iron Dome has been nothing less then a lifesaver. Israeli officials joke that a "cult of the Iron Dome" has developed, as Israelis have started running out of their homes, rather then into their bunkers, to film Iron Dome at work.

Josh Hartman, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry, says Iron Dome has changed the way Israel fights its wars.

"This is certainly a game changer. The Iron Dome is a very sophisticated radar system [that] determines where the rockets are going to land, and if the rockets are going to land in built-up urban populated areas, we choose to intercept these rockets with over 90 percent success rate," he says.

According to Hartman, nearly 300 rockets have been intercepted by Iron Dome since Israel launched its aerial attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip five days ago.

"Just imagine if those interceptions had landed on the civilian population of Israel. The strategic picture would look very, very different," Hartman says.

Over the weekend, Israel sent envoys to Egypt to discuss a possible cease-fire agreement with Hamas. Even though Israel's military built up its presence along the Gaza border and prepared ground troops for a potential invasion, Israeli politicians went on television and urged patience.

Speaking in a busy cafe near the Israel-Gaza border, Amos Harel, a military analyst for Israel's newspaper Haaretz, keeps a close eye on the Iron Dome battery just a few hundred feet away.

"The fact that so many rockets have been intercepted managed to affect considerably the number of casualties on the Israeli side. There is therefore less pressure on the government than there would have been if we'd had the 15 or 20 funerals on the Israeli side. They feel they have a little more space to maneuver," Harel says.

He adds that if there were more Israeli civilian casualties — as there were four years ago during Israel's last offensive in Gaza — the Israeli public would be calling for harsh and immediate action. Iron Dome, he says, gave Israel's leadership a little wiggle room.

In northern Israel, far from the clashes with Gaza, is the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems company — makers of Iron Dome.

One of the head developers of Iron Dome spoke to NPR but can't be quoted by name because of security restrictions. He says the Iron Dome isn't meant to be a catch-all solution for Israel.

"The cost per intercept is high," he says. "The Iron Dome is not meant to stave off everything they are going to fire at us. Iron Dome is meant to intercept the rockets that are fired at us at the beginning of a conflict to give the state of Israel and the army time to assess the situation, perhaps speak to whoever needs to be spoken to, so that either the rocket fire stops or that we solve the rocket fire situation offensively."

Israeli media estimates say that each rocket that is intercepted costs approximately $60,000. The developer at Rafael wouldn't confirm any figures, but he did say he's concerned about the cult following Iron Dome is developing.

"Problem with Iron Dome is that it's become deified," he says. "People see Iron Dome as a savior. What we are worried about is that people are going to become so enamored with Iron Dome that they will do things that are wrong."

For now, he says, Iron Dome will continue to enjoy its day in the sun.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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