- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2007

JERUSALEM (AP) — Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Israel would have to have a missile defense system in place to protect it from Palestinian rocket fire before it could carry out a large-scale pullback in the West Bank, an official said today.

Military experts said it would take between 2½ and seven years to develop a system that would protect Israel from the type of crude rockets Palestinian militants use.

Militants have launched tens of thousands of Qassam rockets into southern Israel from Gaza in the past seven years of fighting, killing 12 Israelis, the army says. Israelis fear West Bank militants could someday produce the projectiles and launch them into nearby Israeli cities.

A large-scale Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be a central component of any final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a key ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s, said last month that he foresaw Israel pulling out of most of the West Bank, except for a few large clusters of settlements, as part of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians.

While Mr. Barak, a former prime minister, supports peace efforts, he thinks Israel must ensure its security before withdrawing from the West Bank and wants a defense system in place before then, an official close to him said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Since the Islamic militant Hamas group took over Gaza in June, Israeli experts have warned that Hamas also could wrest control from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction and is behind many of the rocket attacks from Gaza.

Israel’s high-tech army has been stymied by the primitive Qassam rockets, which rarely cause casualties but wreak panic. Qassam rockets are airborne only about 20 seconds, making interception difficult, said Shlomo Brom, a reserves brigadier general and senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Israel’s only answer so far is an early warning system that alerts residents just seconds before the projectiles hit.

Israel’s state-owned weapons maker, Rafael, is developing a system meant to counter Qassams and the longer-range Katyushas that poured into northern Israel last year during the war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. However, Gen. Brom said it could take six or seven years until the system is ready.

“Thus, Barak’s demand is very problematic. It could put off an agreement with the Palestinians indefinitely,” he said.