Pressure in Israel for missile defense

A long-range Katyusha rocket fired from Gaza has refocused attention on missile threats.

The firing of a long-range Katyusha rocket into Israel from Gaza on Sunday has ratcheted up concerns here for the increased threat of missiles against the Jewish state.

The weapon of choice of Palestinian militants in Gaza has been the Kassam rocket, which has relatively poor aim and short range, but has nonetheless caused damage and killed 14 Israelis and injured hundreds more, according to an Israeli government tally.

The Katyusha rocket is the type of weapon that was used by Hizbullah in Lebanon to hit Israeli cities during last year's war. Unguided but better constructed, it has twice the range – about 12 miles – and the potential to carry about twice the payload, missile experts here say.

The Katyusha was fired at the southern town of Netivot, about seven miles east of Gaza. It landed in an open space, doing minimal damage. The Popular Resistance Committee, a Palestinian militant group in Gaza that includes Hamas, claimed responsibility for the Katyusha attack.

While it wasn't the first time that a longer-range missile was fired from Gaza, the successful launch of one is rare enough to spark new concerns for Israel's vulnerability to missiles.

"Israel is worried over the fact that the range of the missiles being fired on the western Negev settlements has increased and views these developments severely," military intelligence official Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said at the government's weekly cabinet meeting.

The increasing reach of rockets is making itself felt in the political debate as Israelis and Palestinians move toward a US-sponsored Middle East peace summit to be held in Annapolis next month.

"Sending missiles to Israel is a very convenient thing for Hamas at this point, and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas cannot do much about it," says Bassem Zubeidy, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, near Ramallah.

"The most dangerous thing about this is that it might really spread, if things continue in this hopeless direction," Dr. Zubeidy says. "Israel's leaders are sending a message that Israel is not ready to go to that [November peace conference] unless something happens regarding the threat of those rockets. It sounds good in the ears of the Israeli citizens. But I think that the Israelis are asking the Palestinians to achieve the impossible, because Abbas is really too weak to have actual control over events around here."

Several prominent Israeli politicians have expressed reservations over any additional territorial withdrawals until Israel can put a missile-defense shield in place, something experts here say won't happen until 2010.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, told a recent parliamentary meeting that Israel could not carry out a substantial West Bank withdrawal for another 2-1/2 years because of the need for a missile-defense system.

Seizing on reports this week that some of the more progressive circles in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet support turning Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem over to the Palestinian Authority in a peace deal, rightist parliamentarian Effi Eitam said that "a government that divides Jerusalem will cause a Grad missile [similar to the Katyusha] to hit the Knesset."

The comments were in reference to Sunday's Katyusha, which the Israeli foreign ministry says is "an improved version of the infamous Katyusha," according to the ministry's website.

Military sources said the 122-mm heavy artillery rocket was apparently produced in the former Soviet Union and smuggled into Gaza through Egypt.

"It's something we've been expecting for a long time. It's longer range and it theoretically could do more damage because it could carry twice as much explosive," says Uzi Rubin, the president of Rubincon Defense Consulting Ltd.

Mr. Rubin, who established and headed the Israel Missile Defense Organization from 1991 to 1999 and was in charge of Israel's Arrow missile-defense program, has been critical of what he says is Israel's slowness in responding to the missile threat from near and far.

After establishing its conventional air superiority in the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, Rubin said in a recent briefing, defense analysts decided that a larger "missile shield" approach was unnecessary.

"In the wake of the Iraqi missile attacks in 1991, the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] was forced to accept the development of a missile shield," Rubin said. "But the growing threat from shorter-range rockets failed to change the IDF's doctrine of relying on air power. It changed after the summer 2006 war."

Today, he added, "every single point in Israel is within range of a hostile missile or rocket."

Now, he says, Israel is racing to build a missile-shield program. The defense ministry has declined requests to comment on it or to estimate its cost.

The Katyusha launch on Sunday, Rubin says, "will give more impetus to those setting it up, but we should have done it earlier."

Meanwhile, Mr. Barak has said that Israel is considering a major military operation in Gaza in response to the almost daily rocket salvoes. Israel also has threatened to cut power it supplies to the territory unless the attacks cease.

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