TEL AVIV,ISRAEL — TEL AVIV, Israel -- The Israeli government decided to delay striking back at Iraq yesterday only hours before it intercepted another incoming missile.
An Iraqi Scud missile launched toward northern Israel was shot down by a volley of Patriot defensive missiles about 10 p.m., according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Debris from the interception rained over homes and fields north of Tel Aviv but caused no casualties and little damage, the army said.
It was the fourth missile attack on Israel in five days -- and the first successful defense by the anti-missile Patriot system hurriedly provided by the United States.
The success of the Patriot may bolster the apparent extension of restraint decided by the Israeli Cabinet yesterday.
The Cabinet held a lengthy session, described as "somber" by one participant, to consider action after a missile killed three -- heart attack victims -- and injured 98 in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
The terms of that restraint were murky after the meeting. Defense Minister Moshe Arens said that the country would retaliate for Tuesday's attack.
"We have said all along that we would respond to these acts of terror directed against us," Mr. Arens told Cable News Network. "I suppose you wouldn't be surprised if . . . in the Cabinet meeting we discussed some of the details."
But the report of his remarks was followed quickly by a statement from the official Israel Radio that "the Israeli government has decided not to react to last night's missile threat, for the time being."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told his Cabinet members to stop making statements about the issue. Only Mr. Arens and Foreign Minister David Levy should talk about it, so that there "is a single voice," the prime minister said.
The linguistic shuffling came well before last night's Scud attack. The missile, fired from western Iraq, was aimed at an area north of Tel Aviv, said Col. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the army.
Israeli censors forbid publication of the target of the missile or the area of interception.
A report from the area of the interception said that many windows were broken by the concussion.
Colonel Gissin said the Scud was equipped with a conventional, rather than a chemical, warhead.
The success will mean that "Pentagon officials will have a sigh of relief," he observed, and "so will some of the Raytheon officials worried about their stock."
His reference was to the maker of the Patriot system and U.S. officials who helped persuade Israel to rely on the defensive system.
Its failure to stop the Scud Tuesday was not a complete miss, however.
It had been thought that the U.S. crew helping train Israelis had manned the battery. But Israeli defense officers revealed yesterday that
the Israeli crew had operated it, and they claimed it had actually struck the Scud.
Mr. Arens said it appeared the Patriot clipped off the engine of the Scud, but the warhead continued to fall onto an apartment building.
"It looks like there was almost an interception. Very close," Mr. Arens said. "That happens in war, you know. It takes a little bit of luck, and this time we didn't have it."
The crews of the anti-missile systems were surprised at the explosion when the warhead hit.
Israel Radio quoted an unidentified battery captain as saying, "Nothing went wrong. From all the data that was coming to the control center yesterday, the target was destroyed by us by the first missile we shot to the target."