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A few hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was due to fly out of Baghdad international airport at the week's end, several shoulder-fired rockets were shot in the direction of an American transport plane that took off from the same runway. While the rockets missed their target, they nevertheless served as another reminder of the most serious threat to civilian aircraft worldwide.

The two Strela SA-7 missiles, which were fired at Arkia's Boeing 757 in Mombasa, Kenya on November 28, 2002, likewise failed to hit their target, but all the experts are of the opinion that it is just a matter of time until a missile hits a passenger plane. It is so simple to operate a shoulder-fired missile and so many of them have fallen into the hands of terrorists, that it is hard to believe that this has not yet happened.

What is even more worrisome is that, almost a year after the Mombasa incident, most countries simply ignore the threat. This is most surprising in view of the fact that it is obvious that shooting down a plane packed with passengers over Paris or Frankfurt could lead to the collapse of civilian flights and to a significant change in the Western way of life.

Terrorist organizations have thousands of shoulder-fired missiles in their possession. Most of them are Strelas that were produced in the former Soviet Union. The Strela is a cheap missile - it costs some $200,000 - and is light (less than 10 kilos) and can easily be hidden in a car. No special training is necessary to operate it. It has a range of approximately 5 kilometers so that it can be fired from the window of a house, far from the runway - which makes it extremely difficult to abort. That is why intelligence operations and patrols around airports are not sufficient: To provide a reasonable standard of security, there is no choice but to equip the planes themselves with active defense systems.

The blunder in this respect on the part of the Western countries, particularly those of Europe, is particularly great especially because the technology for equipping the planes with defense systems is readily available and is not particularly expensive. Against this backdrop, the announcement last week by British Airways that it is considering equipping all its planes with anti-missile systems is a positive step, which may indicate a change on the part of policy-makers in London. The company has already begun negotiations with Boeing and Airbus.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite the fact that there is a concrete threat to Israeli passenger planes, to this day the government has not taken a decision to allocate the funds necessary for completing development of the defense systems. Only after numerous delays was it decided last week that the Transportation Ministry would earmark NIS 6 million for promoting the development of anti-missile defense systems.

That is too little. The development of the system, in addition to serving a defense purpose, holds promise of great economic profit. True, the cost of such a system is a mere $1 million but the large quantity that would be sold would bring big profits to those who penetrate the market first. Even solely from an economic point of view, it is worth speeding up the process particularly since the Americans are likely to get in before we do. In February, a recommendation was brought before the U.S. administration to provide the funds for equipping all 6,800 civilian planes flown by the various airlines in the U.S. with anti-missile systems. The proposal would cost some $7-10 billion. The president is expected to agree to allocate that sum.

Policy-makers in Jerusalem should take advantage of the vast experience that the military industries have gained in the field of systems against shoulder-fired missiles and ensure that they are ahead of the Americans. This would be justified both in terms of the severity of the threat to Israeli civilian air traffic and the chance of economic gain.