No Laser Defense For Israel's Northern Border For Now

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel may have to wait years before it can install a sophisticated laser defense system to protect its northern border, despite growing unrest along the frontier.

The Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) system, developed jointly by the U.S. and Israel, was designed to shoot down incoming Katyusha rockets fired by Hizballah and other groups from southern Lebanon, into Israeli territory.

Despite successful tests in June and August against Russian-made rockets similar to those used by Hizballah, the THEL has now been deemed too fragile and too cumbersome to be effective along the sensitive border.

"It is very fragile," Lt. John Costello, head of the U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Command told reporters earlier. "It wasn't ready yet and we recognized that."

Due to the changing situation, Costello said, the system was just not adequate.

The test-model could be deployed in Israel if there was an emergency, but, in the meantime, it will stay at the test range in southern New Mexico where research is being conducted on a mobile system.

Israel withdrew its troops in May from a nine-mile wide buffer zone it had maintained in southern Lebanon for more than 18 years, enabling Hizballah to deploy right up to the border, and that much closer to Israeli towns.

The Israeli army does not divulge details of its defense system, but a spokesman said there was "no doubt" that the need to defend the northern border is a "primary concern" for Israel.

According to reports, the U.S. and Israeli governments are working on an agreement to develop a mobile version of the THEL, which is expected to take five to seven years.

Meanwhile, Hizballah is threatening to continue to carry out attacks, and Israel is warning that it will strike back, not only against the Hizballah but against the countries it accuses of backing the Islamic fundamentalist organization - Lebanon and Syria.

Mohammed Ra'ad, leader of Hizballah's political wing in the Lebanese parliament, said Israel's threats did not scare the organization. In an interview on Radio Monte Carlo, Ra'ad said Hizballah would not be deterred from launching attacks.

An Israeli military source was quoted as saying that Hizballah would continue to try to kidnap soldiers, plant roadside bombs and penetrate the border of Israel. He said it was his view Palestinian organizations were also asking to participate in the actions along the northern border in order to expand the conflict.

Last month, an Israeli soldier was killed by a roadside charge, planted a half-mile within Israel.

In October, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped in a well-planned Hizballah raid. There has been no word on their condition and requests from both the Red Cross and the international community to visit the soldiers have been refused.

Hizballah is fighting to take over a small area known as the Shaba Farms, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. When United Nations cartographers drew the line for Israel's withdrawal, they agreed that the area should remain in Israel's hands until an agreement was made with Syria.

Hizballah says the land belongs to Lebanon.

In a meeting with the Hungarian Defense Minister Janos Szabo, Prime Minister Ehud Barak charged that Hizballah was continuing to act against Israel with "winks and nods" from Syria and Lebanon, despite the fact that Israel had complied with a U.N. resolution on withdrawal from south Lebanon.

"Israel will act assertively to defend its citizens and soldiers and will not tolerate strikes at its sovereignty," Barak said.

Earlier in the week, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk warned against a serious escalation, which he said could engulf the region if Israel is not taken seriously.

"It would be a big mistake to underestimate Israel's willingness to defend its interests. There's a real danger [of military confrontation] if Hizballah is not restrained," Indyk said.