WASHINGTON - Congress approved a $225 million package to replenish Israel's missile defenses with its last order of business before a five-week recess, as the Jewish state's cease-fire with Hamas unraveled and Israeli forces pushed deep into Gaza in search of a missing army officer.
The House's 395-8 vote in favor late Friday followed Senate adoption of the legislation by voice vote earlier in the day. The money is directed toward restocking Israel's Iron Dome, which has been credited with shooting down dozens of incoming rockets fired by Palestinian militants over 3½ weeks of war. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
At a White House news conference earlier Friday, the president reiterated his support for Israel's right to self-defense while urging greater protection for Palestinian civilians. Obama called for the immediate release of the soldier believed to be captured by Hamas and said it would be hard to put together another cease-fire after a 72-hour humanitarian truce collapsed almost immediately after going into effect Friday morning. He also cited Iron Dome as a concrete way the U.S. is helping "make sure that Israel is able to protect its citizens."
The defense system has emerged as a game-changer in the current round of violence with Israeli officials citing a success rate as high as 90 percent.
Iron Dome uses radar, advanced tracking technology and anti-missile batteries to follow the trajectory of an incoming rocket or mortar and determine if it is headed for a major population center. If an urban area is threatened, interceptors are fired to detonate in the air in close proximity to the missile. Projectiles not posing a threat are allowed to fall in empty fields. The system targets short-range rockets with a range between 2 miles and 45 miles; interceptors cost as much $100,000 apiece.
Created by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome has enjoyed strong U.S. technological and financial support.
Throughout its history, the U.S. has provided more than $700 million to help Israel cover costs for batteries, interceptors, production costs and maintenance, the Congressional Research Service said. The total already appeared set to climb above $1 billion after Senate appropriators doubled the Obama administration's request for Iron Dome funding for fiscal 2015. Now it seems likely to rise even further, with Obama expected to sign any bill swiftly into law.
It's unclear, however, how quickly the new supplies might reach the battlefield. And Israel and Hamas may be in for a prolonged fight.
At least 140 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed Friday. Fighting near the Egypt-Gaza frontier continued into the night, with residents reporting airstrikes and heavy tank and artillery shelling. The Israeli military said it was searching for the missing soldier and sent automated calls or text messages to residents to stay indoors.
The soldier's apparent capture also prompting a shift in messaging by the Obama administration, which had appeared increasingly irritated with the mounting Palestinian casualties over the last several days. More than 1,600 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 60 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have been killed in the conflict.
Despite almost universal support for Israel in Congress, the Iron Dome money appeared in doubt only a day ago as Senate efforts stalled after an effort by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to find cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for the aid. Earlier, senators attempted to lump the Israel money into a broader spending bill that included border security and wildfire assistance money. That bill failed to get the necessary 60 votes on Thursday, and the House had little interest in it, anyway. Both chambers turned their attention to a separate Israel bill Friday.
Voting against the measure in the House were Democrats Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Zoe Lofgren of California, Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Jim Moran of Virginia, and Republicans Justin Amash of Michigan, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
Some of Congress' Iron Dome money could go to U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, which can manufacture components of the system after a March 2014 agreement between Israel and the United States. The two companies also are collaborating on a system targeting mid-range rockets that can travel between 45 miles and 200 miles to protect Israel against Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Bashar Assad's government and Sunni extremists in Syria.
With an eye on Iran, Israel also is developing a deterrent against longer-range threats. The next generation of the Arrow system is scheduled to deploy in 2016.