Israel deploys new anti-missile system

March 27, 2011

Israel on Sunday deployed a still experimental anti-missile system to protect residents within striking distance of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, a clear sign that Israeli leaders do not believe that rocket fire from the territory will abate soon.

An initial battery was deployed around the southern city of Beersheba, 25 miles from the Gaza border, as increased Palestinian rocket fire sent Israelis scurrying into shelters all across southern Israel in recent days.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged that the system, called Iron Dome, would provide only partial protection.

“I do not want to foster the illusion that Iron Dome, which we are deploying today for the first time, will provide a complete or comprehensive answer,’’ Netanyahu said after a weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.

Netanyahu said that Israel has no interest in an escalation of hostilities with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, but that “we will not hesitate to use the might of the Israel Defense Forces against anyone who attacks our people.”

On Sunday, the Israeli air force reportedly killed two militants from the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad who the military said were preparing to fire rockets or mortar shells into Israel.

The Iron Dome system was rushed into service amid discussion of a possible new, broader Israeli military offensive against the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which Israel describes as a terrorist group but which is also a major force in Palestinian politics.

Israel launched a widely criticized bombardment of the coastal territory in late 2008 to try to put an end to rocket attacks. The conflict left an estimated 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Using cameras and radars to track incoming projectiles, the Iron Dome system was developed with more than $200 million in U.S. assistance, reportedly about half its cost.

The system is unable to protect communities within about a 3-mile radius from Gaza, an area that sustains the most intensive mortar and rocket fire.

Earlier this month, representatives of those communities appealed to Israel’s highest court to try to force the government to strengthen defenses in their towns.

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