Forty-five years ago today, the first Qassam was launched in the Middle East. Its name was Shavit-2, and former prime minister David Ben-Gurion posed for a photograph near the missile, which was said to be capable of carrying a satellite at its tip. The message was clear: Whoever was capable of launching an object atop a missile into space could also arm a missile with a warhead. Given the news that Egypt aspired to acquire missiles capable of "striking every spot south of Beirut" and several months after the nuclear plant at Dimona was unveiled, Israel deployed a deterrent that was locally manufactured.
Hamas' arsenal of weapons of the Grad missile family - the Katyusha and Qassam, which landed in Ashkelon yesterday, exhibit a similar significance. It can be called the "Shalit 2," because while all eyes are directed toward the abduction of corporal Gilad Shalit, Hamas militants managed to land a direct punch on Israel.
The relatively acceptable attacking of kibbutzim and agricultural villages in the western Negev becomes more unbearable when they land in Sderot, and more so when they hit Ashkelon. The rockets, and to a lesser degree the tunnels, make it clear to Israel that no unilateral separation can take place behind fences. This is a challenge that demands one of two, or perhaps, both actions: a determined military campaign against the Hamas government and the terrorist infrastructure and a no-shooting agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
Until the Shalit case, the Olmert government did not consider Qassam rockets launched regularly toward Sderot and other towns as cause for embarking on a major offensive against Hamas-controlled Gaza. The combination of the Shalit abduction and the blitzing of towns has forced the government to continue its ongoing operation in the northern Gaza Strip, while continuing the operation in Rafah in the south against those who abducted Shalit.
After yesterday's Qassam attack on Ashkelon, the challenge may have become so great that the government will not be able to declare an end to the operation until the Hamas government falls. On the other hand, while a large-scale operation may endanger Shalit's life, the IDF may settle down in the northern Gaza Strip and push the Qassam rocket crews further back.
Hamas has three goals in its rocket development plans: range, warhead and shape. If the Palestinians manage to smuggle a few Fajr-type surface-to-surface rockets from Lebanon or Iran, they will be able to reach Tel Aviv. But even without these, their independent capabilities have shown that they can hit the center of Ashkelon, and their ambition will be to strike at the Hatzor air base or at Ashdod and the hundreds of thousands living in nearby cities. The explosive warhead may be replaced by basic chemical or biological agents, which will cause panic. And if yesterday it was Gaza, tomorrow may be the West Bank.
The rocket attack against Ashkelon signifies the tightening of the missile-siege against Israel, including those of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
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