Israel’s missile shield aces first serious test

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Iron Dome rocket shield has aced its first serious test. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been careful to stay on the sidelines. And Islamic Jihad — now closer to Iran than is its larger rival Hamas — is taking the lead in this round against Israel.

These are some of the trends emerging from four days of fighting between Israel’s air force and Gaza rocket squads, triggered by Israel’s killing of a militant leader last week. Twenty-four Palestinians have been killed, including seven on Monday, and about 1 million Israelis in rocket range have seen their lives disrupted by the threat of rocket attacks, with frequent sirens warning them to run for cover.

Egyptian truce efforts appeared to stall, as both sides said they were willing to keep fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would keep striking those trying to harm Israeli civilians and that Israel is “ready to broaden its operation.”

Gaza militants insisted that Israel stop firing first and that it promise to halt airstrikes aimed at killing Gaza militants for good, a guarantee Israel is unlikely to give. Egypt sided with the Palestinians in their demands.

In Israel, government officials and missile experts praised the performance of Iron Dome, an Israeli-made system designed to shoot down short-range rockets like those fired from Gaza.

Iron Dome has been rolled out over the past year, and the current fighting poses its most serious test. Israel has other systems deployed against longer-range missiles.

Iron Dome uses cameras and radar to track incoming rockets and intercepts only those that would pose a threat to people and property, ignoring those that are expected to fall in open areas.

The military said that of 143 rockets fired since Friday, it tried to intercept 63 and succeeded in all but nine of those attempts. No Israelis have been killed in the current fighting, and property damage has been relatively minor.

Uzi Rubin, a missile expert and former Defense Ministry official, said Iron Dome has exceeded expectations. “The performance up to now has been almost flawless,” Rubin said, adding that the perception could change quickly in the event of casualties.

Military analyst Yiftah Shapir said Iron Dome would likely score fewer interceptions if Israel were attacked by a larger number of missiles simultaneously, a scenario Israel would have to consider if it attacks Iran over its nuclear program. Tehran’s proxies on Israel’s borders — the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza — are believed to have a stockpile of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.

Shapir said Iron Dome has given a psychological boost to those living in rocket range, but it has not reduced the economic damage caused by closing schools and keeping hundreds of thousands of people from their jobs and daily routines.

Others noted that each intercept costs about $100,000, arguing that the cost could be prohibitive if Israel were fighting a full-fledged war.

In the current round, Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, has taken the initiative.

Islamic Jihad has maintained close ties to its sole sponsor, Iran, while Hamas in recent months has drifted away from its longtime patron, in part because of disagreements over Syria’s brutal crackdown on regime opponents. Iran has punished Hamas for refusing to side with Syrian President Bashar Assad, including by cutting funding.

Israeli officials believe that Islamic Jihad has amassed hundreds of rockets and missiles, if not thousands, including weapons taken from Libyan military bases during the chaos surrounding the fall of Libya’s longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi. Missiles and other weapons reach Gaza through smuggling tunnels running under its border with Egypt.

In the current round, Islamic Jihad showed that the three main cities in southern Israel — Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba — are in easy reach of its Russian-designed Grad rockets. On Monday, two dozen rockets struck southern Israel, including one that damaged an empty preschool on a communal farm. Police said no one was hurt.

Rubin believes Islamic Jihad also has longer-range missiles that could reach the major population centers of central Israel, like Tel Aviv. Hinting at possible escalation, Islamic Jihad warned Monday that its “patience is limited” and that it is ready to unleash “fire and destruction,” though such rhetoric is routine during flare-ups like this one.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since a 2007 takeover, has pointedly kept out of the fighting and is appealing for calm, though it has not prevented rocket fire by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

Hamas is trying not to provoke a major Israeli offensive that could undermine its control of the territory of 1.7 million Palestinians. An Israeli offensive three years ago delivered a damaging blow.

Hamas is behaving like a responsible government in Gaza,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.

On Monday, four militants, a 16-year-old, a 65-year-old man and the man’s 30-year-old daughter were killed in four separate raids, Gaza health official Adham Abu Salmia said.

The teenager died while walking to school, and the father and daughter were killed when a missile struck outside their home, witnesses said. Two dozen Palestinians, including several children, were wounded in a separate pre-dawn strike. Israel said the raid targeted munitions stores in a residential building.

In Israel, thousands spent another day in bomb shelters, while others ran for cover when sirens wailed. Some 200,000 students were kept home from schools for a second day.

The Maariv daily ran a front page picture of a 10-year-old girl from Beersheba, shown lying on a street with her hands over her head. She later explained that a siren had just gone off, and she dropped to the ground because she didn’t have anywhere to run.

Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Additional reporting by Ian Deitch in Jerusalem.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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