Israel has sped up work on a missile defense system for its commercial airliners because of fears that Palestinian militants in Gaza have obtained anti-aircraft weapons looted from Libya, defense officials said Friday.
All Israeli passenger planes will be fitted with the laser-based system "within months," or about a year ahead of schedule, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to brief journalists.
Israel began developing the system in 2002, after Islamic militants tried to hit an Israeli passenger plane with shoulder-fired missiles outside Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed, but the incident pushed Israel to find a way to better protect its commercial airliners.
About 100 planes are being fitted with the system, named C-Music, at a cost of about $135 million. It aims to improve on earlier technology installed on a smaller number of jets flying to destinations known to be home to militant groups or otherwise considered dangerous, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. That device fired flares to lure heat-seeking missiles away from the plane.
The officials said the new system uses lasers to more effectively jam heat-seeking mechanisms and throw missiles off target.
The project was sped up because of fears that weapons looted during the civil war in Libya have been smuggled into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the officials said.
Israel has maintained a tight blockade on the Gaza Strip to prevent weapons smuggling since the militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from its more moderate Palestinian rivals in 2007. But tunnels underneath Gaza's border with Egypt still provide an entry point for smugglers.
During Libya's eight-month civil war, human rights groups and reporters came across a number of weapons depots that were left unguarded and were looted after Moammar Gadhafi's fighters fled.
The United Nations says preventing more weapons from being smuggled out of the country is a top concern but that it will be difficult because of the vast desert nation's porous borders.
In particular, the U.N.'s top envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, has urged authorities there to prevent thousands of shoulder-fired missiles and other weapons purchased by Gadhafi from getting into the hands of armed groups and terrorists.
He said Libya under Gadhafi accumulated the largest known stockpile of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles of any non-producing country.
Gadhafi was overthrown in August when anti-government rebels took control of the capital, Tripoli. He was captured and died in the hands of rebels on Oct. 20.
Palestinian militants tried to hit an Israeli military helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile this summer while it was pursuing Palestinian gunmen who had crossed from Egypt's Sinai desert into Israel where they killed eight people.