Washington, Dec. 29 - For the residents of southern Israel, 2011 will be remembered as yet another year filled with the terrifying sound of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza, and the screeching sirens giving them a few seconds to reach safety.
According to The Israel Project’s count, terrorist fired 653 rockets and mortars at Israel this year as of December 29, compared with 238 in 2010.
The year began with a military-grade projectile fired at an Israeli community of 6,500. For most of the year, Israelis in the south faced intermittent bombardments from Gaza, even as a new missile defense system successfully intercepted scores of rockets and minimized casualties.
The Iron Dome system, which intercepts rockets in mid-air, dramatically changed the strategic landscape, saving major cities like Beersheba and Ashdod from potentially devastating strikes and fulfilling the hopes of defense authorities.
Some analysts also believe that Iron Dome, if expanded to protect sensitive targets like Israel’s international airport, could help nurture a more suitable climate for peace talks, which have been frozen over the past year.
Yet at the same time, the limitations of the program have become well known. Each Iron Dome missile costs between $50000 and $100,000, compared to the mere hundreds of dollars it costs terrorists to make a Qassam rocket. Israeli defense officials concede this makes blanket security unachievable.
One barrage of rockets fired from Gaza in March illustrated how the terrorists were changing their tactics to respond to the new defense system. Instead of sending a few rockets, they fired scores in the hope of getting one or two through to their targets.
As journalist Yossi Melman wrote then, “It's safe to assume that Hamas engineers, helped by Iranian experts, are constantly looking for the system's Achilles' heel.”
Israel also responded with targeted strikes at terrorists launching rockets. With enhanced surveillance using unmanned drones, Israeli commanders can often see terrorists preparing to fire and attack them swiftly. IDF spokesperson Avital Leibovich noted that in December of 2008, there were 659 rocket launchings compared to 36 this month.
With a relative lull in violence along the Gaza-Israel border, Hamas Prime Minister Khaled Mashaal is planning an international tour to gain support for Palestinian unity efforts that he says will not exclude Hamas from using violence in the future.
Meanwhile, residents of Sderot, an Israeli town on the Gaza border and an epicenter of rocket strikes over the years, have created a menorah out of old Hamas rockets to celebrate the holiday of Hanukah and the resilience of their community, while hoping for a less turbulent 2012.