Iron dome - AP - 27.3.11
Israeli soldiers next to the anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, near Be'er Sheva on March 27, 2011. Photo by AP
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A senior officer in the Israel Air Force said Monday that the recent stationing of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system in southern Israel spared the Israel Defense Forces from launching an offensive operation in Gaza last April during the cross-border escalation with Hamas.

Colonel Shahar Shohat said Iron Dome's success in intercepting rockets fired from Gaza toward Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon allowed Israeli leaders to have a broader decision space and ultimately decide not to launch another offensive such as Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

Colonel Shohat, speaking at a missile defense conference, compared the cross-border escalation in 2008 which led to the Second Gaza War to the latest escalation in April 2011.

"[Before Operation Cast Lead], the public pressure translated into a need to act in any way possible to stop the threat on southern Israel," he said. "Then it was decided to launch a ground operation, which not only cost hundreds of millions of shekels per day but cost many soldiers' lives and harmed Israel's civilian infrastructure. Ultimately, after several weeks of struggle, there was a ceasefire."

"But last April," Colonel Shohat stressed, "rocket fire toward the Negev began once more and there was again public pressure to act against the threat. This time, we had missile-defense systems. Two Iron Dome batteries were positioned and even without being fully operational they worked well and intercepted most of the threats.

"The success of the batteries gave the decision makers the freedom not to launch an attack. The enemy did not reach his target, got frustrated, and eventually stopped firing. The escalation was thwarted due to the defense system and we reduced the number of casualties by not launching a ground operation."

Last April, cross-border fire between Gaza and Israel seriously escalated. Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel, including an anti-aircraft missile that hit a school bus which resulted in the death of a 16-year-old boy. IDF forces also launched numerous attacks on targets in the Gaza Strip.

IDF officials have recently said that Israel plans to speed up production of Iron Dome batteries, due to fears that the country could be facing increased fighting on several fronts in the next few years.