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Israeli officials say antimissile system is working

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, talks to soldiers during his visit to the Iron Dome missile-defense system deployed in Ashkelon in southern Israel on Sunday.

Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, talks to soldiers during his visit to the Iron Dome missile-defense system deployed in Ashkelon in southern Israel on Sunday.

JERUSALEM — A new Israeli-made missile-defense system has gotten off to an encouraging start, shooting down at least eight rockets in a test run that could potentially change the long-running war between Israel and Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza.

Israeli officials say the $200 million "Iron Dome" has performed beyond expectations, raising hopes the military has found a way to rob Hamas militants of their most potent weapon: the short-range rockets that have made life miserable for large swaths of the population over the past decade.

The repeated successes have raised spirits in Israel's embattled southern region, prompted a congratulatory visit to an Iron Dome battery on Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and fueled calls, perhaps unrealistic, that the system be deployed nationwide. Experts say Iron Dome is the first system capable of knocking down rudimentary rockets favored by militants around the globe.

Yet officials and analysts warn the excitement may be premature, noting that the system is in its infancy and that armed groups in Gaza possess plenty of other formidable weapons.

"We will not be able to protect every house, every installation, every site in the state of Israel," Netanyahu said, even as he hailed the Iron Dome as a "most impressive technological achievement."

Iron Dome's computer system detects the launch of a rocket almost instantly and calculates its trajectory. If it is headed toward an open area, its operator can let it land. But if it is traveling toward a population center or other sensitive target, the operator can fire an interceptor missile from a box-like launcher pointed at the sky.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former Israeli air force general and lawmaker, said Iron Dome would be effective if combined with other defense systems and offensive military operations against militants.

"It's the beginning of a significant change," he said. "The road is long, but it's real." He said it was the first time that any country had developed a defense against short-range rockets like the ones fired from Gaza.

Meanwhile, a senior member of Gaza's ruling Hamas movement on Sunday made a rare appeal to the Israeli public for a halt to the escalating cross-border fighting, telling an Israeli radio station in fluent Hebrew that Hamas is ready to stop its rocket fire if Israel ends its attacks on Gaza.

As nightfall approached, Gaza militants had fired about 10 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, police said, but Israel had not hit back.

At a late afternoon meeting of Israel's Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, the military was told to "continue to operate against terrorists in order to stop the (rocket) fire on Israel."

Israeli officials say antimissile system is working 04/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 10:55pm]
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