SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

NEW YORK - Israel was using the Gaza battle with Hamas as a “practice run” for any future armed confrontation with Iran, featuring improved rockets that can reach Jerusalem and new antimissile systems to counter them, according to American and Israeli officials.

“It is Iran, of course, that most preoccupies (Israeli) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and (US) President (Barack) Obama,” The New York Times said in a dispatch Friday, citing those unnamed officials. “While disagreeing on tactics, both have made it clear that time is short, probably measured in months, to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme,” the report said.

“And one key to their war-gaming has been cutting off Iran’s ability to slip next-generation missiles into the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where they could be launched by Iran’s surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, during any crisis over sanctions or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Although American press usually makes excuses for Israelis setbacks in the conflicts with the Arabs, the Palestinians’ power was acknowledged in some media reports here. Despite being subjected to massive attacks resulting in death and destruction, the Palestinians refused to surrender and Israel had to call off its plans to conduct a ground offensive.

According to the Times, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States and a military historian, likened the insertion of Iranian missiles into Gaza to the Cuban missile crisis.

“In the Cuban missile crisis, the US was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union,” Oren said after the cease-fire was declared on Wednesday. “In Operation Pillar of Defence,” the name the Israel Defence Force gave the Gaza operation, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.”

The Time wrote, “It is an imprecise analogy. What the Soviet Union was slipping into Cuba 50 years ago was a nuclear arsenal. In Gaza, the rockets and parts that came from Iran were conventional, and, as the Israelis learned, still have significant accuracy problems. But from one point of view, Israel was using the Gaza battle to learn the capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - the group that has the closest ties to Iran - as well as to disrupt those links.

“Indeed, the first strike in the eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel arguably took place nearly a month before the fighting began - in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as another mysterious explosion in the shadow war with Iran.”

A factory said to be producing light arms blew up in spectacular fashion on Oct. 22, and within two days the Sudanese charged that it had been hit by four Israeli warplanes that easily penetrated the country’s airspace. Israelis will not talk about it. But Israeli and American officials maintain that Sudan has long been a prime transit point for smuggling Iranian Fajr rockets, the kind that Hamas launched against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over recent days.

“The missile defence campaign that ensued over Israeli territory is being described as the most intense yet in real combat anywhere - and as having the potential to change warfare in the same way that novel applications of air power in the Spanish Civil War shaped combat in the skies ever since.

“Of course, a conflict with Iran, if a last-ditch effort to restart negotiations fails, would look different than what has just occurred. Just weeks before the outbreak in Gaza, the United States and European and Persian Gulf Arab allies were practicing at sea, working on clearing mines that might be dropped in shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.

“But in the Israeli and American contingency planning, Israel would face three tiers of threat in a conflict with Iran: the short-range missiles that have been lobbed in this campaign, medium-range rockets fielded by Hezbollah in Lebanon and long-range missiles from Iran.

“The last of those three could include the Shahab-3, the missile Israeli and American intelligence believe could someday be fitted with a nuclear weapon if Iran ever succeeded in developing one and - the harder task - shrinking it to fit a warhead.

“A United States Army air defense officer said that the American and Israeli militaries were “absolutely learning a lot” from this campaign that may contribute to a more effective “integration of all those tiered systems into a layered approach.”

“The goal, and the challenge, is to link short-, medium- and long-range missile defense radar systems and interceptors against the different types of threats that may emerge in the next conflict.”