November 17, 2012

Mideast fighting: A new twist on an old conflict?

Hamas is emboldened by the Arab Spring, and its rockets prompt an outcry before Israeli elections.

By DAN PERRY and JOSEF FEDERMAN The Associated Press

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A Palestinian demonstrator runs through tear gas Thursday during clashes against Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip outside Ofer, an Israeli military prison near Ramallah.

The Associated Press

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JERUSALEM - In four days of fighting against Gaza-based militants, Israel has used a missile-defense system called "Iron Dome" to intercept rockets fired at populated civilian areas. It says the new home-grown system has been a tremendous success. As of Saturday evening, the military said it had shot down some 240 incoming rockets, more than half the number of projectiles launched into Israel since Wednesday.

Here's a quick look at the system:

Produced by Israeli-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome is meant to shoot down rockets and artillery shells with ranges of up to 45 miles.

The system detects launches of rockets and quickly determines their flight path. If a rocket is headed toward populated areas or sensitive targets, it fires an interceptor with a special warhead that strikes the incoming rocket within seconds.

Currently, five Iron Dome batteries are deployed in Israel. Most are located in the south near Gaza. A fifth battery was deployed outside Tel Aviv on Saturday, two months ahead of schedule. Hours later, it shot down a rocket headed toward Tel Aviv.

Missiles cost around $40,000 apiece. In 2010, the United States provided $200 million to expand development. Additional funding is currently being considered, with $70 million already allocated for the 2012 fiscal year.

-- The Associated Press

A pair of incidents marked a significant escalation in Israel's view. First, Hamas militants blew up a tunnel along the Israeli border in an attempt to attack Israeli troops. Then, Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep, seriously wounding four soldiers.

As rocket fire heated up early last week, there were an increasing number of calls by the Israeli public for a response by the government, which is up for re-election on Jan. 22.

Might Israel have decided to escalate with electoral calculations in mind? Israeli officials dismiss such suggestions, and the army says the objective is solely to halt the rocket fire.

Still, historical precedent certainly seems to be there:

In June 1981, weeks before a vote he seemed set to lose, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the air force to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in faraway Iraq. The strike was successful, Begin won the election by a whisker, and as a bonus the world even came to appreciate the elimination of Saddam's potential nuclear weapons.

Fifteen years later the man Begin defeated, Shimon Peres, found himself as caretaker prime minister and saddled with a electorally inconvenient reputation as an overzealous advocate for peace. First, Peres ordered the killing of Hamas' key bombmaker, leading to a series of ferocious revenge bombings that badly sapped his support. And in April 1996, two months before the vote, he ordered a massive air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon which many considered to be at least partly politically driven. The campaign ended with Hezbollah still in place and Israel halting the operation ignobly after mistakenly killing dozens in a U.N. compound. Peres lost by a whisker.

Four years ago the man who defeated Peres then, Benjamin Netanyahu, was staging a comeback after a few years out of office, and surging in the polls. The government of Ehud Olmert, far more moderate than Netanyahu, ordered an operation against Hamas.

The reason will be familiar to anyone watching the news today: Israeli public opinion was fed up with rockets from Gaza.


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