A new Israeli weapons system knocked down a Palestinian anti-tank rocket in its first combat test Tuesday, the military said, showing off technology that could protect the heavy vehicles that have been the mainstay of the world's ground forces for decades.
Palestinian fighters said they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli tank as it patrolled near the Gaza-Israel border, a frequent occurrence. This time, the "Trophy" system sensed the incoming rocket and fired its own projectile, blowing it up away from the tank, the military said.
Trophy is thought to be the only active defense system of its kind in the world. Up till now, tanks have relied on heavier and thicker armor plating to protect against more powerful anti-tank weapons.
Experts say the active defense concept, if it works consistently, could allow the construction of smaller, lighter and more efficient tanks.
The Israeli military did not make pictures or video of the Tuesday encounter available to the media, instead issuing a short statement. It said a tank came under fire while on routine patrol, and "for the first time during operational activity, the Trophy system, ... designed to actively protect against anti-tank missiles, identified, alerted and intercepted the (anti-tank rocket)."
Israel began developing the Trophy after its 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, when guerrillas with simple rocket-propelled grenades hid in alleys and buildings and took potshots at Israeli tanks, hitting dozens and killing at least 19 Israeli tank crewmen.
The military did not say how many tanks are equipped with the systems, estimated to cost about $200,000 apiece. Last year, displaying the system to The Associated Press, developers said it was installed on some Israeli tanks in a pilot project.
Violence in and around Gaza has escalated in recent weeks after a two-year slowdown that followed Israel's bruising invasion of Gaza in early 2009, aimed at stopping daily rocket salvos from Palestinian militants there.
Earlier Tuesday, in the West Bank, vandals smashed windows of seven Palestinian cars and threw a firebomb at a house. Police blamed extremist Jewish settlers, retaliating for destruction of two structures at an unauthorized settlement a day earlier.
Settlers call their retaliation for such government moves "price tag." Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak denounced their actions and pledged to enforce the law.
Settlements are at the heart of the current impasse in peace efforts. Palestinians say they cannot negotiate a peace deal while Israel continues to build on the lands they want for a future state. Israel responds that there has never before been such a precondition for peace talks.
With peace talks on hold for five months, the Quartet of Mideast mediators - the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia - invited Israel and the Palestinians to separate meetings in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss ways to restart peacemaking.
The Palestinians said they would send negotiator Saeb Erekat. Israel said late Tuesday that an official would meet Quartet representatives in Jerusalem later.
Nabil Abu Rudainah, a senior Palestinian official, said the Palestinians would ask the Quartet to demand a halt to all Israeli settlement construction.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the peace talks, said Israel is weighing alternatives to its demand for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
"We are considering a diplomatic initiative to move the peace process forward," the official said, referring to a "phased path." He refused to give further details.