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Israelis brace for missile firestorm

TEL AVIV, Israel, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- For months, military leaders and commentators have been warning Israelis their cities face an unprecedented threat of missile attacks even as the country invests heavily in developing air-defense systems experts say cannot provide adequate protection.

This uncharacteristically downbeat theme was summed up by Maj. Gen. Amod Yadlin, the outgoing chief of Military Intelligence, in a Nov. 21 briefing to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Cabinet.

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"Tel Aviv will be a front line in the next conflict," he warned.

A few days earlier, he'd told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "future wars … will be much bigger, much wider and with many more casualties" than Israelis have experienced before.

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Uzi Rubin, director of Israel's Missile defense Organization in 1991-99 and a pre-eminent missile analyst in the region, has declared that Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah have 1,500 warheads capable of hitting Tel Aviv, Israel's largest conurbation, and the country's industrial and financial heartland.

Around 2 million people live in the greater Tel Aviv area, which was hit by 36 Scud-type missiles by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.

"The enemy has achieved aerial supremacy without even having aircraft," Rubin said, referring to Hezbollah and the Palestinians' Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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Israeli leaders say Hezbollah has more than 40,000 missiles and rockets, almost four times the number it had when it fought Israel in a 34-day war in 2006.

During that conflict Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, about 120 a day. That's the heaviest bombardment Israel has experienced.

Most of Hezbollah's arsenal consists of short-range weapons but it is also reported to have Syrian M600 missiles, Iranian Fateh-110 guided rockets and Soviet-built Scud-B ballistic missiles.

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Syrian has dozens of Scuds and Iran has an estimated 200 Shehab-3b ballistic missiles but is developing the more advanced and more accurate Sejjil-2.

So it would only need a few dozen of the larger missiles to wreak havoc and inflict far more damage than Hezbollah did in 2006, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians.

Reuven Pedatzur of the liberal daily Haaretz, who is a longtime critic of how Israel will be defended against large-scale missile attacks, said that implicit in the statements made by Yadlin and Rubin "is a worrisome fact: Israel is investing billions of dollars in the development of a defensive system that will not be effective in a crisis and formulating an erroneous strategy for dealing with the ballistic missile/rocket threat."

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After the 2006 war, there was a clamor in Israel for defensive systems to counter short- and medium-range projectiles. The result was a strategy to construct a three-layered defense system to shoot down the different types of missiles.

The high-altitude, long-range Arrow-2 built by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and the Boeing Co. would take care of Iran's ballistic weapons.

It has been operational for several years and a more advanced Arrow-3 variant is under development.

Other systems known as Iron Dome, built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and David's Sling, being developed by Rafael and Raytheon of the United States, would handle the short- and medium-range weapons like Hezbollah's Katyushas and Hamas' Grads and Qassams.

Iron Dome was unveiled with great fanfare in July after reportedly passing several test interceptions with flying colors. But plans to deploy the initial two batteries were shelved in November.

The military said the delay in deployment was caused by the need for extra training for the crews manning a complex system.

But many viewed the military's move with concern that the much-vaunted missile defense shield may not be as good as it's cracked up to be.

When Iron Dome was proposed in 2006, it was scheduled to become operational in 2012 but Rafael was paid a hefty bonus to get it working ahead of schedule.

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Four years after Hezbollah exposed Israel's vulnerability to attack by short- and medium-range rockets, and billions of dollars in development programs, it seems that Israel's cities and air bases are still exposed.

The statements made by Yadlin, Rubin and others about the dangers the country now faces indicate Israel's leaders are preparing the country for the worst.

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