TEL AVIV [MENL] — Israel’s military has been bracing for Palestinian missile attacks on a major southern city.

Israeli officials said the military has assessed that Palestinian insurgents would launch missile strikes on Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip. They said the military has been introducing systems and platforms into Ashkelon to detect and respond to missile attacks.

“Ashkelon is the choice target for the Palestinians,” an official said. “This city has critical facilities that must be protected.”

[On Monday, two Israelis were also injured in a Palestinian shooting attack. Palestinian gunners also fired rockets and missiles toward Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip. Officials said Palestinian insurgency groups have stepped up their attacks in violation of the ceasefire announced by the PA in February.]

Over the last few weeks, the military has deployed radars and begun assembly of a command and control system in Ashkelon. The radar was identified as the Nur, an Israeli modification of the U.S.-origin TPQ-37 artillery-detection system.

Ashkelon contains such critical facilities as a port, oil depot and power station. The city is located nine kilometers north of the Gaza Strip and within range of the Kassam-class missile.

Hamas has deployed three versions of the Kassam, the latest of which has a range of more than 10 kilometers. Officials said Hamas has been testing a longer-range version in flights from the Gaza Strip into the Mediterranean Sea.

Hamas has also obtained standard fuzes as well as explosives for the missile’s warhead. Officials said the components were smuggled from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Officials said the military has the capability to detect any Kassam launch and predict where the missile would land. But the military does not have any system to intercept the Kassam.

Israel and the United States have been jointly developing the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser for the interception of short-range missiles, rockets and mortars. Officials said an M-THEL prototype would not be completed before 2008.