WASHINGTON– About 100 U.S. European Command soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed to Israel to help set up an early warning radar system reported no close encounters with air strikes or retaliatory attacks along the Gaza Strip, a Eucom spokesman said.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas refused to renew a ceasefire agreement with Israel when it expired Dec. 19, and began stepping up rocket attacks on civilian targets in Israel. Israel, in turn, began launching airstrikes against Gaza Strip targets Dec. 27 in an effort to eliminate Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israeli territory.

Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian confirmed Stars and Stripes’ report that the Eucom team is operating on an Israeli air base nowhere near the targeted areas.

The Eucom troops deployed to Israel to help set up an Army/Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance system, Dorrian confirmed. The Israeli government requested the system to help defend against a potential missile attack from Iran.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signed off on the deployment order in mid-September, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed during a Sept. 30 news conference.

Once fully operational, the system will be capable of tracking and identifying small objects at long distance and at very high altitude, including space, according to U.S. Missile Defense Agency officials. It also will integrate Israel’s missile defenses with the U.S. global missile detection network.

“This will enable the Israelis to track medium- and long-range ballistic missiles multiple times better than their current radar allows them to,” Morrell said. “It will … more than double the range of Israel’s missile defense radars and increase its available engagement time.”

This, he said, will greatly enhance Israel’s defensive capabilities.

“There is a growing ballistic missile threat in the region, particularly from Iran,” Morrell said. “And no one in the region should feel more nervous about that threat than the Israelis. And they clearly do, and they have asked for our assistance. And we have now provided it in the form of this … X-band radar equipment.”

About 120 U.S. servicemembers initially deployed to Israel to set up the system, a number Dorrian said is now down to about 100.

Morrell estimated that the system will take about half that many U.S. personnel to operate once it is up and running. “This is and will remain a U.S. radar system,” he said. “This is not something we are giving or selling to the Israelis.”

The system, he said, is another sign of U.S. commitment to Israel. “We are committed to the Israelis, to Israel’s defense,” Morrell said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern about escalating violence in Gaza.“We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence there,” Rice said in a statement. “The ceasefire must be restored immediately and fully respected. The United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.”

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