The success of the Iron Dome missile interception system spared Israel another offensive in the Gaza Strip during April's escalation of hostilities, a senior Israel Air Force officer said yesterday.

Col. Shachar Shochat, head of the active defense section of the IAF's aerial defense division, said that Iron Dome's success in shooting down Katyusha rockets aimed at Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva allowed the cabinet some space for decision making. As a result, unlike in 2008, the situation was de-escalated without Israel launching a full-fledged military operation.

He was speaking at the second annual missile defense conference organized by the Israel Technology Group and the Ayit association.

Shochat compared the escalation of rocket fire from Gaza in late 2008, which culminated in Operation Cast Lead, to the latest escalation, in April 2011. During the former, since Israel lacked an interception system, "there was rising public pressure that eventually transformed into a need to act in any way possible to stop the threat against the south. At the time, the decision was to go for a ground incursion, which cost hundreds of millions of shekels per day of combat, and also caused casualties to our forces and damage to Israel's civilian infrastructure. After a few weeks of clashes, a cease-fire was put in place."

In April, he said, rocket fire began again, "and again there was public pressure to act against the threat. But this time, we had our first defense systems. Two Iron Dome batteries were deployed, and though they weren't yet operational, they functioned well and intercepted most of the threats.

"The batteries' operational functioning gave the decision makers a degree of freedom, in that launching an offensive wasn't essential. The enemy failed to achieve his objective, got frustrated and eventually stopped shooting. The escalation was contained through the defense system.

"We reduced injury to human life, in part by not having to go for a deep ground incursion. I'm not even talking about the damage the civilian economy would have sustained, just before Pesach and the domestic tourism season."

Uzi Rubin, a missile expert who formerly headed the Defense Ministry's missile interception administration, Homa, told the conference that April's escalation "ended the argument over missile interception in general and Iron Dome in particular. Previously, the enemy had the initiative and could decide when to escalate. Now this has changed. In April, scores of missiles were fired, but nobody got hurt, except people who fell over running for the shelters."

Shochat told Haaretz that this summer, the aerial defense division will begin preparing a new unit to operate a new missile interception system, Magic Wand, which the army hopes will be operational within 18 months. Magic Wand is a mid-range interception system, capable of intercepting missiles launched from longer distances than Iron Dome is designed for but shorter distances than the Arrow system can handle. Like Iron Dome, it is manufactured by Rafael.