ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) - An Israeli missile system intercepted two rockets fired from Gaza on Thursday in the first known use of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile shield, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
The new weapon, deployed last month to protect southern Israel, was launched as fighting flared after Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired an anti-tank missile which hit an Israeli school bus, wounding two people.
“Our Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted two projectiles successfully,” Netanyahu said at a Prague news conference during a visit to the Czech Republic.
Two interceptor missiles were fired at the rockets which appeared to be heading toward the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, just north of the Palestinian territory.
A Reuters photographer witnessed the missiles being shot into the sky with a deafening roar as they headed toward their target.
One missile was seen homing in on a rocket and destroyed it in mid-air.
A military spokeswoman said Israeli forces had also targeted the rockets’ launching squad and troops had reported a hit on them. There was no word from Gaza sources of such a strike.
Militants have fired rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel since the Hamas Islamist movement seized control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinians loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
In December 2008, cross-border clashes escalated into a three-week war in which Israel pounded the enclave. About 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the offensive.
Rocket fire and retaliatory Israeli air strikes increased again last month and 16 Palestinians were killed. A tourist died in a Jerusalem bomb attack, the first of its kind since 2005.
Israel is known currently to have two operational Iron Dome shields and has deployed them in fully operational mode for the first time in the past two weeks, but has warned Israelis under fire from the Hamas-run territory they would not be completely protected since it can cover only limited areas.
Iron Dome is a mobile radar-guided missile system and is designed to destroy incoming rockets in flight. The manufacturers say it will target only rockets set to hit built-up areas and will ignore those on a harmless trajectory.
Reporting by Ori Lewis, additional reporting by Dan Williams, Jason Hovet and Robert Mueller in Prague; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Sophie Hares