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Obama offers help to broker cease-fire
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama offered the help of the United States on Thursday in negotiating a cease-fire to end escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, as world leaders warned of an urgent need to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could engulf the fragile region.
In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama lent his support to Israel’s efforts to defend itself against an onslaught of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, but he also called on both Israel and the Palestinians to protect civilians and restore calm.
The White House said the U.S. was willing to “facilitate a cessation of hostilities,” potentially along the lines of a 2012 cease-fire that the U.S. helped broker. More than 85 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians, since Israel began an offensive on Tuesday against the Hamas militant group.
Associated Press photos
At left, seen from the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel, puffs of smoke show where three Israeli rockets – part of its Iron Dome air defense system – exploded Thursday, taking down rockets launched by Palestinian militants. At right, an Iron Dome rocket launches from the coastal city of Ashkelon.

In Israel, Iron Dome changes battle

As Gaza rockets travel farther, air defense prevails

– Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system has emerged as a game-changer in the current round of violence with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, shooting down dozens of incoming rockets and being credited with preventing numerous civilian casualties.

By shooting down more than 90 percent of its targets, the U.S.-funded system is ensuring Israel’s decisive technological edge that has helped it operate virtually unhindered in Gaza.

At the same time, it’s also providing a much-needed sense of security on the home front.

Gaza militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, some more than 60 miles deep, covering an area home to about 5 million people.

But beyond some jitters and discomfort, they haven’t hurt Israelis much, causing no casualties and little damage.

“The Iron Dome system and its impressive success thus far have had a strategic impact on managing the campaign. It gives us wide options,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “Having said that, we cannot become complacent.”

Israel has deployed seven batteries across the country that – coupled with a high-tech warning system – have given it its best defensive capabilities ever.

Iron Dome quickly recognizes the trajectory of incoming rockets and whether they are headed for major population centers. Those are shot down, while others are allowed to fall in empty fields to spare the hefty cost of firing the sophisticated interceptors. Local reports say each launching costs about $20,000.

So far, Hamas and other Gaza militants have fired more than 420 rockets toward Israel in three days of fighting.

The military says it has shot down 90 of those, including several over Tel Aviv and central Israel.

On Thursday afternoon, the system was deployed for the first time in Jerusalem. Two puffs of smoke could be seen in the sky – apparently after intercepting two incoming rockets.

Improved system

Lt. Col. Levi Itach, head of the military’s early-warning branch, said several high-tech measures along with a disciplined public that has vigilantly followed instruction have allowed Israel to keep its casualties from rockets to a minimum.

He said the systems had improved significantly in the two years since the last major exchange of airstrikes and rocket fire between Israel and Hamas, in which six Israelis were killed and several were injured by Gaza rocket fire in that weeklong battle.

The system is still far from foolproof. On Thursday, rockets struck a home in the southern city of Beersheba and a car in Ashdod – incidents that easily could have resulted in casualties. Itach said no system could provide 100 percent protection.

“If we keep up what we are doing, there is a good chance that we will be able to lower the ratio to 1 death for every 10,000 rockets fired,” Itach said.

Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other militants have acquired longer, more powerful weapons in the past two years, but Israel had not been idle, either. He said improvements to Iron Dome have allowed it to hold off on a ground operation while the home front was protected.

“It gives us much more room to maneuver. ... Now we have the ability to hold our breath for some time,” he said. “And I’m sure that Hamas is feeling frustrated with this situation because after launching hundreds of rockets, they haven’t managed to get Israeli casualties.”

Just the start

Iron Dome is the first of a planned three-part defense system that Israel hopes will be operational by year’s end.

It has successfully tested “Magic Wand,” designed to intercept projectiles with ranges between 45 miles and 180 miles, and is aimed primarily at countering the large arsenal of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon and those of President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.

Together with the Arrow system for longer-range threats from Iran, the three components will complete what Israel calls its “multilayer missile defense.”

The next generation of the Arrow, in the development stage, is set to be deployed in 2016. Called Arrow 3, it is designed to intercept missiles at high altitudes, before they are on their downward path toward their target. Together, the two Arrow systems would provide two chances to strike down incoming missiles.

Just this week, President Barack Obama cited the systems as proof of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.

“Across the board, our unprecedented security cooperation is making Israel safer and American investments in Israel’s cutting-edge defense systems like the Arrow interceptor system and Iron Dome are saving lives,” he wrote.