Yadlin told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the IDF had detected the launch of a rocket with a 60-km. range from the Gaza Strip into the Mediterranean Sea last week.
The missile, officials said, was probably a version of an Iranian-made artillery rocket that is 5 meters long and can carry a 45-kg. warhead. To increase the rocket’s range, they noted, Hamas had the option of shrinking the warhead to 25 or 30 kg., enabling it to strike deeper into Tel Aviv.
In what the IDF said was a coincidence, the Home Front Command is scheduled to test the air sirens in the Tel Aviv area on Wednesday, as part of nationwide tests that began earlier this year. Defense Ministry officials recently met with representatives from the Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan municipalities to discuss the latest developments.
Officials said that the Hamas missile test took place on Thursday, when the rocket was fired into the Mediterranean Sea under cover of darkness and bad weather. Israeli tracking systems detected the launch and tracked the projectile as it flew some 60 km., the farthest Hamas has reached since it began firing rockets in 2001.
“This is a major boost in Hamas’s capabilities,” a senior defense official said on Tuesday. Defense officials have estimated that terrorists in the Gaza Strip had 3,000 rockets before Operation Cast Lead and fired or lost to Israeli air strikes more than 1,000. Since the offensive last winter, Hamas is believed to have replenished its stockpiles and also obtained long-range Iranian-made missiles.
“Hamas understands that it cannot defeat Israel in a ground battle and therefore is doing all it can to get its hands on long-range missiles that penetrate deep into the Israeli home front,” the senior official said.
Speaking on a visit to the headquarters of the Juniper Cobra joint US-Israel missile defense exercise on Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said such missiles endanger the “whole world… but above all, they threaten our civilians, our cities.”
IDF sources said it was possible that the rocket was smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels in several components. Iran already supplies Hamas with 122mm. Katyusha rockets that are smuggled into Gaza in several pieces and then assembled by the Islamist groups’ engineers.
“Hamas is almost exclusively supported by Iran in terms of money, training and equipment. The same is with Hizbullah and other terror organizations,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Tuesday at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This Iranian missile tested by Hamas is also in the hands of Hizbullah in Lebanon, security sources said.
The sources said that it was also possible that Hamas could reverse-engineer the missile and learn how to make others like it independently in the Gaza Strip. They tressed that the disadvantage of using a larger rocket was that it required a larger launcher – likely mounted on a truck for mobility – which was easier to detect than smaller Kassam launchers.
Yadlin told the Knesset committee that despite the increase in Hamas’s capabilities, this summer was the quietest in dozens of years, for four reasons: Israeli deterrence, Hamas’s aspirations regarding the Obama administration’s diplomatic policy, the group’s focus on force-building, and internal struggles that have taken energy from the armed organizations in Gaza.
Hamas, he continued, was not currently interested in a conflict with Israel and was directing its energies toward strengthening its civil rule in the Strip. Hamas was also continuing to smuggle weaponry into Gaza through the network of tunnels it operates under the Philadelphi Corridor from Egypt.
In addition, he said, Hamas had accelerated its efforts to restore and improve both its ground forces and its rockets. According to Yadlin, Hamas was now in a better position as far as its rocket capabilities were concerned than it was before Cast Lead.
The Military Intelligence chief also said that Hamas did not yet see itself as having reached its desired military capabilities.
He did, however, say that all of the 19 rockets fired into Israel during the month of October were fired by splinter groups, and that Hamas was actively trying to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel. Intelligence information indicates that Hamas is taking active steps to discourage rocket fire, even resorting to occasionally shooting members of rocket-launch squads in the knees, said Yadlin.
Hamas, he warned, was not the only one of Israel’s enemies becoming stronger. Iran was funding, training and smuggling weapons to Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, and Iranian weapons were passing through Turkey and Syria – which Yadlin described as a “factory and storehouse” for weapons – to the Lebanese guerrilla group.
The intelligence assessment is that Syria is still “very involved” in Lebanon, he said.
Hizbullah, Yadlin continued, was still storing weapons south of the Litani River, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Yadlin noted that Hizbullah was storing most of these weapons in civilian houses, which UNIFIL was forbidden from entering. The Lebanese army occasionally played an enabling role in assisting Hizbullah, he said.
During Operation Cast Lead, Grad-type rockets, Kassam rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel from Gaza, with projectiles hitting Beersheba and Ashdod, some 40 km. from the Strip.
Though rocket fire from the Strip has decreased since the three-week offensive, weapons are continually smuggled through tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.
Yadlin said that Egypt had improved in its attempts to try to stop smuggling and was making unprecedented efforts in Sinai as well as in Egypt proper, but was still not succeeding in stopping the smuggling entirely.
Hamas said on Tuesday that it would neither confirm nor deny reports about the new long-range missile.
Abu Obaidah, spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, said: “We refuse to comment on such claims. The goal of these claims is to incite against the Palestinian resistance and the Gaza Strip.”
Israel, he said, “can say whatever it wants. But in the end it’s all speculation and there are many questions hovering over this matter.”
“The armed wing of Hamas, Izzadin Kassam, has no comment on this report. We neither confirm nor deny it.”
Tovah Lazaroff and Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.
Reprinted with Permission from Jerusalem Post