'Iron Dome rocket defense system will take years to deploy'
'Watch your step,' Barak warns Hamas over rockets; Hamas: Palestinian attacks are response to Israeli aggression.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday it would take years before Israel's new rocket defense system would be fully deployed along borders with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
Barak predicted that once the barriers are in place, they would significantly reduce Middle East hostilities.
Last week, Israel announced it had successfully completed testing the Iron Dome system, designed to protect civilians from short-range rockets fired by Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The military did not say at the time when the system would become operational, though Channel 10 TV said a first battery would be deployed in May.
The military on Monday released three brief video clips of last week's test, each showing streaking rockets disappearing inside a white circular flash. In one video, a rocket is seen disintegrating into a shower of tiny fragments. Each video appears to show a tiny, stationary circular object waiting in the path of the incoming projectile shortly before the explosion.
Despite the technological success, Barak said it would take "years" before the system is fully operational.
"We can't sow the illusion that now that development has been successfully completed, tomorrow morning there already will be complete protection for the Gaza area or the north," Barak said. "It will take years before we are equipped."
Israel has had no system in place to guard against thousands of rockets that militants rained down on its southern and northern borders over the years. Millions of Israeli civilians are within rocket range, and the military stepped up its quest for a solution after the country's 2006 war against Hezbollah, when 4,000 rockets bombarded northern Israel.
Iron Dome, developed at a cost of more than $200 million, uses cameras and radar to track incoming rockets and shoot them down within seconds of their launch, the Defense Ministry said. It is to be integrated into a multilayered defense umbrella designed to neutralize all missile threats - including long-range ballistic missiles from Iran that might be configured to carry nuclear warheads.
Barak predicted Iron Dome would pare military operations against Hamas and Hezbollah in the future.
"It will save time of fighting and deter in many cases a potential enemy from really launching an attack," he said.
He also deflected concerns about the high cost of employing the system: It has been estimated that it would cost many thousands of dollars to shoot down a single rocket, which in Hamas' case, could cost only several hundred dollars to manufacture.
"The whole picture from my point of view is how much it costs us to run the war one day more or probably not just even opening it," he said. The cost of one day of warfare against the Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, will cover 10,000 interceptors.
Barak warns Hamas: Watch your step
Barak on Monday also advised Gaza's Hamas rulers to "watch their step, and not to cry crocodile tears if they force [Israel] to take action."
Army Radio on Monday quoted Israeli security experts as saying that Hamas has lessened its determination to prevent the rocket fire from Gaza, due to growing dissent in the coastal strip.
He added that Israel's three-week incursion into Gaza last winter had made Hamas reluctant to resume the rocket fire that triggered the offensive.
"The deterrence achieved during Operation Cast Lead still exists, and it is strong. The fire in recent days stems from Hamas' inability to rein in Jihad bodies and independent groups."
Barak also said he believed Hamas was unable to rein in the other militant groups.
"I think the recent days reflect the inability of Hamas to control the dissident groups, the Popular Committees or Islamic Jihad, who are trying to break the tranquility," Barak told Reuters during the unveiling of the anti-rocket system.
"Hamas is well deterred from trying another direct collision with Israel. I hope that they will take over - or else," the defense minister said when asked if a new Gaza conflict was possible.
Asked about Barak's comments, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the Palestinian attacks were carried out in response to "continued Israeli aggression".
A Palestinian official, who asked not to be identified, said Hamas planned to meet other groups soon to urge restraint, unless Israel stepped up its attacks.
On Sunday, an Israel Air Force strike in central Gaza killed three Palestinian militants, including a senior field commander, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a "powerful response" to recent rocket and mortar shell attacks from the coastal territory. The IAF strike targeted a cell as its members were launching rockets at Israel.
Barak said Monday that he supported Netanyahu's plan to close off Israel's southern border with Egypt by building a NIS 1.5 billion fence which the prime minister said would prevent the entry of "infiltrators and terrorists."
"Good fences make good neighbors," he said.
PLO accuses Hamas of leading its people to slaughter
Meanwhile, in contrast to previous Israeli attacks on Gaza, Sunday's operation drew no condemnations from any Palestinian group, and no threats of retaliation.
Arab media covered the incident in brief, without the customary footage of wounded Palestinians, bodies and blackened vehicles, Army Radio reported.
The absence of threats and condemnations left room for Hamas rivals on the airwaves. PLO Executive Committee Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo said "Hamas, or its allies, are operating under this excuse or that one, in advancement of their own interests they are leading the Palestinian people to slaughter."
The low profile of this event could be attributed to recent efforts to reconcile between the rival Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas. The Lebanese daily As-Safir reported Monday that a planned summit between the Saudi king and the Syrian president was planned for Thursday in Riyadh, focusing on mending the rift between Fatah and Hamas. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may also attend the summit.
If the summit goes as planned, it will be the first meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Mubarak in over a year, and will also focus on rehabilitating broken ties between Egypt and Syria.