Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, director of Military Intelligence, announced Tuesday that Hamas launched a rocket some 60 kilometers into the sea, apparently as an experiment. Such a rocket, if fired from the northernmost point of the Gaza Strip, could strike the southern cities of the Gush Dan area – including Rishon Letzion, Holon and Bat Yam – and possibly reach as far as Tel Aviv itself.
Although Yadlin didn't specify the type of the weapon used, it appears to be a standard, foreign-made rocket smuggled into Gaza. Yadlin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hamas has accumulated an arsenal of rockets slightly larger than the arsenal it possessed before last winter's Operation Cast Lead.
The experiment hardly caught Israeli intelligence by surprise, as it had assumed Hamas had acquired a similar type of rocket several months ago. However, the importance of Yadlin's report should not be underestimated as this is the first tangible piece of evidence that Hamas holds a weapon capable of striking Gush Dan. It would seem Hamas has used the lull in fighting with Israel to not only restore, but improve its capabilities. Still, and similar to Hezbollah, restoring the arsenal hardly testifies to restoring motivation to confront Israel militarily.
The rocket was fired in rough weather, apparently in an attempt to hide the experiment from Israeli eyes. But Israel's radar installations registered the launch, even if the exact spot where the missile hit the sea is unknown. Israel believes Hamas considers the new rocket a strategic asset, a "doomsday weapon" of sorts, and therefore avoided publicizing the experimental launch, in the hope of using the weapon as a surprise during some later confrontation.
If the rocket has in fact been smuggled through a tunnel, a test launch may have been aimed to see whether the weapon survived the journey – by sea from Iran to Egypt, and then to Gaza.
Since Cast Lead, a huge international effort – involving Israeli, American, European and Egyptian cooperation – has been underway to prevent smuggling into Gaza. International media has reported that the Israel Air Force bombed weapon convoys in Sudan. Be that as it may, the Gaza siege is not airtight. The smuggling market there employs over 15,000 people working in over 600 tunnels.
Smuggling longer-range rockets into the Strip does somewhat alter the balance of deterrence. Hamas is also busy improving its own production capabilities, as well as equipping itself with new anti-tank missiles and older anti-aircraft missiles.
Preparing the public
Yadlin's announcement should be seen as part of an attempt by the military to prepare the public for a new attack against the Strip. The General Staff is not remotely eager for another round, especially with the Goldstone report conclusions still haunting commanders of the previous operation when they travel abroad.
Hamas, for it's part, is in no hurry for a confrontation either. Gaza has not yet recovered from the devastation of Cast Lead, and the organization knows it would pay in heavy casualties if the conflict reignites.
What Israel should be doing in the meantime is improving its anti-missile defense systems. Iron Dome, the Israeli answer to the Katyusha and Qassam rockets, is moving along satisfactorily, and the first battery of its interceptor missiles should be deployed in the second half of 2010.
The official response from Hamas has been somewhat confused. At first, a spokesman for the organization's military wing, Abu Obeida, refused to confirm Yadlin's statement on the missile launch. Obeida remarked that "the occupation can say whatever it likes, and whatever it says is dubious." While this statement might improve Hamas deterrence against Israel, such an opaque statement carries a political price for Hamas: A perceived threat can only improve Israel's position ahead of the UN General Assembly discussion of the Goldstone report.
A few hours later, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum issued a new statement saying the Israeli announcement was aimed to influence world public opinion ahead of the UN debate. Barhum said the diplomatic crisis triggered by the report "has led the Zionist enemy to make up excuses in an attempt to instigate public opinion against Hamas."