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Associated Press
Israelis rush for cover during a siren alert for a rocket fired by Palestinian militants at a residential building in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

Israel’s Iron Dome deflecting most rockets

A missile defense shield developed by the U.S. and Israel is intercepting nearly 90 percent of Palestinian rockets that appear to be a threat to populated areas, Israel is claiming.

The conflict is the largest test yet of the Iron Dome missile defense system designed to protect southern Israeli towns from rockets fired from the bordering Palestinian territory of Gaza.

But its limits were evident Friday, when two Palestinian rockets struck near Jerusalem, beyond the zone regularly protected by Iron Dome.

The advent of longer-range rockets could hasten an expanded Israeli response, including a ground invasion of Gaza. No rockets have hit Jerusalem in four decades, but Friday’s strikes confirmed that militant groups have the capacity to fire munitions much deeper inside Israel.

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, said it had developed the two “M-75” rockets that landed near Jerusalem on Friday. The rocket type, with a range of about 46 miles, had not been previously used by Hamas, although the group was known to have some longer-range rockets.

Hamas has also been amassing longer-range Iranian-built Fajr-5 rockets and appears to have used one in a fatal attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday. The rocket also has a range of about 46 miles, posing a threat to half of Israel’s population.

Israeli officials would not specify the type of rocket that struck an apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv on Thursday, killing three people.

“When the (Gaza) operation was planned, we were very much aware of this capability, and we understood that this could happen,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “We know Hamas has been gaining capability over time, but this is the first time we’ve seen it used.”

The Iranian rockets are larger than the ones Hamas has traditionally used. Western intelligence officials say components are smuggled into Gaza – most likely through tunnels across the Sinai border – and assembled in small factories disguised as residences.

“We don’t think they have that many more,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said of the longer-range rockets.

Israel’s air assault on rocket sites inside Gaza has been largely successful, Oren and other Israel officials claimed. Israeli officials released updated figures Friday that they said show improving performance knocking down incoming rockets. By late in the day, Iron Dome batteries had destroyed 192 of the 200 Hamas rockets the system had sought to engage, Israel’s Ministry of Defense reported.

“Iron Dome continues to be an amazing success story, with a 90 percent success rate,” Oren said. “In terms of defending the south, it’s really a remarkable story.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his deep appreciation for the U.S. investment in the Iron Dome defense system, the White House said in a statement.

The United States has invested heavily in the Iron Dome, with lawmakers approving an estimated $900 million spread over several years. Its advance radar system calculates the flight path of incoming rockets and decides within seconds whether a rocket’s course will lead to a populated area or empty field.

More than 400 Hamas rockets were allowed to land harmlessly because they were deemed to be of little threat, said a senior Israeli defense official.