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The Iron Dome short-range missile defense system passed a series of tests over the last few days with flying colors, successfully shooting down Qassam rockets, Grad rockets and mortar shells one after the other.

It even succeeded in determining which missiles to shoot down - those whose trajectory made them likely to land in a populated area - and which to ignore.

This was the first test of the system as a whole rather than individual components.

The results are a feather in the cap of the developer, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which succeeded in transforming the highly complex system from an idea into an almost fully operational product in just two and a half years. The first operational battery is expected to be deployed in May.

Credit also goes to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his ministry's outgoing director general, Pinchas Buchris, for pushing the project.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the successful tests. Iron Dome is supposed to provide protection against missiles with a range of between four and 70 kilometers. That covers everything from mortar shells through Hamas' Qassams, Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets and even Iranian Fajr rockets, which have apparently made their way to the Gaza Strip. As such, it radically improves Israel's strategic position.

Nevertheless, protection of Israel's home front remains far from complete. First, Iron Dome has yet to be tested in a genuine attack. Second, Israel still lacks any additional missile batteries beyond the prototype just tested. Third, the intermediate layer of Israel's missile defense system - Magic Wand, which is supposed to handle missiles with longer ranges than those covered by Iron Dome but shorter than the long-range ballistic missiles covered by the Arrow - has yet to reach a similarly advanced stage of development, and is not expected to do so until 2012.

The first Iron Dome battery will be delivered to the air force in about six weeks and is slated, if all goes well, to become operational in May. A single missile battery is enough to protect a medium-sized city like Sderot.

The question is how many batteries the Israel Defense Forces will ultimately acquire, and when. It would take about 20 batteries, each costing some NIS 50 million, to defend the entire northern and southern border regions. That will require either diverting substantial funds from other defense projects or significantly increasing the defense budget.

Rafael is expected to profit handsomely, both from sales to the IDF and, later, overseas. The United States, for instance, might want to purchase the missile protection system to defend its army bases in the Middle East against terror attacks.

Will Iron Dome make Israel more likely to launch another war in Gaza? It may do just the opposite, by increasing Israel's deterrence against Hamas, thereby stabilizing the situation. If Hamas knows its ability to harm Israel has been substantially reduced, it may be less likely to engage in provocations.

However, the Palestinians will almost certainly put the system to the test, if only in the hope of scoring a symbolic victory by breaking through Israel's technological shield.

But for all the praise this achievement deserves, one criticism must be leveled: It should have happened much sooner. For years, the IDF refused to invest the necessary funds in developing Iron Dome, until former defense minister Amir Peretz finally forced it to do so. Had this been done sooner, not only would Israeli lives have been saved, but it might have been possible to avoid last winter's war in Gaza altogether and significantly reduce the damage from the Second Lebanon War in 2006.