JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel’s new rocket-interceptor system will not be deployed near the Gaza Strip as expected but kept on standby, possibly to counter attacks from the north by Lebanese Hezbollah should conflict erupt with its backer, Iran.
News this week on deployment of “Iron Dome”, a short-range system to be ready by June, disappointed Israelis in southern towns who hoped it would be set up to protect them from rockets fired by Gaza’s Islamist Hamas fighters.
Less than a month ago, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the rocket shield would have its first deployment on the Gaza front. But this week officials changed tack and said they had to think of placing it elsewhere, notably facing Lebanon.
“At the moment there is quiet (in Gaza) that is based on deterrence, which has to be examined every day of course because it could change, and Hamas’s basic hostility toward Israel has not changed,” said Defence Ministry official Amos Gilad. “There are also other sectors. There is the Lebanon sector,” he told Israel Radio. “If deterrence is not working, then we have to think what measures to use.”
Produced by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd., Iron Dome uses small radar-guided missiles to blow up Katyusha-style rockets with ranges of between 5 km (3 miles) and 70 km (45 miles), as well as mortar bombs, mid-air.
Its development was spurred by the 2006 conflict in Lebanon with Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip war against Hamas a year ago, in both of which Israeli towns within reach of short-range rockets were in some respects defenceless.
While the north has gone quiet, sporadic fire still pesters towns inland from Gaza. The rockets are inaccurate and only rarely inflict damage or injury. But each firing triggers a loud alert, sending people rushing to shelters and keeping nerves on edge in towns such as Sderot.
The left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz on Friday said Sderot was looking forward to the rocket shield but “the townspeople’s expectations that they would be the first to be protected by Iron Dome have been shattered”.
In an editorial, however, the paper said: “Get real, Iron Dome is too expensive to defend Sderot”. “The cost of producing launchers and missiles against cheap rockets is extremely high”, it said, noting that Hezbollah has bigger rockets and may present a greater potential threat.
Gaza is under a tight Israeli blockade and Hamas is likely to exercise caution, after the blitz by Israel a year ago that killed 1,400 Palestinians — a majority civilians — in three weeks while 13 Israelis, mostly soldiers, lost their lives. But Israeli military planners are wary of the north, where Hezbollah, a larger force with greater reach, killed 43 Israeli civilians in strikes during the month-long war in 2006.
Israeli generals “were wrong … to scorn the enemy’s rockets and missiles” in the Lebanon war, Haaretz commented.
Unlike Hamas, the Lebanese Shi’ite guerrillas are not easily cut off from re-supply. They are widely believed to have replenished their arsenal with Syrian and Iranian help.
Should Israel carry out its threat to attack Iran’s nuclear sites if sanctions fail to derail a suspected atom bomb project, Hezbollah might retaliate in support of its ally in Tehran.
Hamas, while also sponsored by Iran, is less likely to join a proxy war and is weaker militarily, Israeli officials say.
Two Iron Dome batteries are currently under construction, a defence official said. Designed to be towed by vehicle, they will be available for any Israeli front at a few hours’ notice.
The decision to keep the system “on standby” could of course point to a perception that there is no immediate need to commit it to either front.