Sderot Group Suing Olmert, Barak for Failure to Protect Region

Residents of Kassam-battered town claim gov't won't deploy anti-missile system, hopes new system will solve the problem by 2011 - at massive cost

Sarah Morrison and Avi Tuchmayer ,

Sderot residents are suing the State of Israel for failing to implement adequate security measures to defend the town against daily rocket fire from Palestinian Authority terrorists in Gaza, less than five kilometers away.

The group has named Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as primary defendants in the civil case for not using the Nautilus system to defend against Kassam and Grad-type Katyusha rockets. The advanced defense mechanism, developed by the United States and Israel, uses laser beams to shoot down missiles before they strike their intended targets.

According to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, head of the Ramat Gan-based Israel Law Center that is representing the group, the nautilus system was developed during the mid-1990s in order to defend northern Israel from Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon. She added that it is hard to understand why the system has not been employed to protect the people of Sderot and other western Negev towns and kibbutzim.

"Israel could bring the system to Sderot and use it to protect the people there from Kassam rockets," she said. "In 1996, when Israel was under threat from Lebanon, Israel asked the United States to help them establish a system to protect northern settlements from Katyusha rockets. This system, called Nautlius, shot down Katyushas, Kassams, and bombs with 100 percent success."

Project Abandoned in 2000

However, in 2000, as the project was set to advance to the operational stage, the government dropped the program, citing budgetary limitations and a period of relative "quiet" in the north following the IDF withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone in May, 2000.

"Israel just stopped developing the system," Darshan-Leitner said. "Hizbullah wasn't considered a threat at the time and there weren't many rockets falling. Now that people are constantly living under fire, Israel decided to create a new system from scratch."

Experts say there are four major obstacles to that new system, dubbed "Iron Dome" - most importantly that it won't be ready for deployment until at least 2011. There is also no guarantee the system will work as it has not yet been successfully tested. Even if it does work, every missile shot down will cost Israel $100,000. It also does not protect against short-range missiles. The Plaintiffs claim the Nautilus system is ready for use now.

"It's just sitting there in New Mexico," Darshan-Leitner said. "There is a way to take it apart, bring it to Israel and rebuild it. A company told me that it would take no longer than five or six months. It would cost around 50 million dollars to rebuild it, but there would be unlimited protection against Katyushas, Kassams, and bombs."

Defense Ministry Rejects Claim

Officials in the defense ministry say the residents' anger over continuing rocket attacks from Gaza is understandable, but reject the claim that initial tests for the Nautilus system were 100 percent effective.

"First of all, it is incorrect to say the program finished in 2000," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the ministry. "Together with the US Army and other American developers, we spent more than $400 million between 1996 and 2005 on development for the Nautilus system, even when we were getting mixed results from the initial system tests. As long as there was a chance that the results would lead to a functional, effective missile defense system we stuck with the program. But in 2005 the US military backed out of the program because it wasn't working, and we decided to end our involvement as well."

Dror said a panel of 30 experts, including air force officers, university professors and other experts in the field, met in mid-1997 to discuss options for defending Sderot against a range of missile and mortars, and concluded that a mobile, missile-to-missile program was best suited to the particular challenges posed by the ongoing Gaza attacks. He acknowledged that the cost of each anti-missile shot fired is significantly higher than other options, but also said that development costs will be lower.

"Take a laser-based system," he said. "Each laser fired would cost $10,000, as opposed to $50,000 for each anti-missile rocket. But the development costs for such a system are a fraction of the cost of a laser system, and for technical reasons, a missile-to-missile system is far more likely to be effective. And that is really the bottom line: There is no way to put a price tag on the trauma caused by living with the ongoing threat from, and even more for people injured or even killed by Kassam attacks, God forbid. We are spending as much as we need to in order to develop the most effective system we can to protect residents of Sderot and the entire western Negev region. 

Group Suing Egypt as Well

"We filed suit on behalf of forty Sderot residents who lost loved ones in Kassam rocket attacks,"  Darshan-Leitner said. "They're suing Egypt for helping the terrorist organizations smuggle weapons, bombs, oil and people into the Gaza Strip and Israel. Since Egypt is considered a co-participant, it is responsible for damages incurred during these attacks."

"Egypt has a relationship with Israel and America," Darshan-Leitner said. "I don't think the Egyptian government will refuse to pay."

The US State Department, bowing to pressure from senators, governors and terror victims, said it would not intervene in such a tricky case. Darshan-Leitner terms the United States decision not to be involved with the case against Egypt "passing a crisis."

"This is a civil case, and I don't think that the government will have a problem with paying," Darshan-Leitner said confidently.

Click here for complete interview with Yishai Fliesher