Defense officials concerned as Hamas upgrades Qassam arsenal
Hamas believed able to store rockets for long time, enabling it to launch large number from Gaza at once.
Hamas has recently upgraded its Qassam rocket capability in the Gaza Strip, raising grave concern in the Israeli defense establishment.
Senior defense officials say that Hamas is now able to store the rockets for a relatively long period, which would allow the organization to launch a large number of Qassams at one time.
Over the past year, the IDF and Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) have said that two developments could prompt a major Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. One was an improvement in the range of the Qassam rockets, which would place Ashkelon within range. The other was an ability to store the rockets for a longer period of time. It seems that Hamas has already achieved the latter, and is close to achieving the other.
Until recently, Hamas had difficulty in storing the rockets. The Qassam is a relatively primitive device, assembled on improvised production lines in the Strip. The explosive charge installed on the rockets is volatile and might explode if kept for more than a few weeks. This is one of the reasons behind Hamas' haste to launch most of its rockets as soon as it gets them.
When firing rockets is politically inconvenient, Hamas hands them over to smaller organizations such as the Islamic Jihad, various Fatah factions and the Popular Resistance Committees to launch them in its place.
In previous periods of escalation between Israel and Hamas, such as last year's Independence Day, Hamas fired almost 300 rockets in a few days before running out of supplies.
The defense establishment is now concerned that Hamas may accumulate several hundred or even thousands of rockets, building up a large arsenal. Under this scenario, Hamas would be able to fire hundreds of rockets a day at Sderot for several days, prompting Israel to take extreme measures.
The Second Lebanon War showed that the Air Force is incapable of overcoming short-range rockets launched from a small area, not to mention a densely built area like Gaza. In the absence of an aerial solution, the IDF may have to mount a ground operation that would lead to heavy casualties on both sides.
The improvement in rocket-storage capability followed the entrance into Gaza in recent months of Palestinian terror experts, mostly via the Rafah crossing from Egypt. These experts, members of Islamic organizations, trained with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon and Iran.
Alongside the ability to store rockets for longer periods, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, with Iran's help, are expected to increase the Qassam rockets' 15-kilometer range, which would place Ashkelon and dozens of small communities in the northern and western Negev within rocket range.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai met Thursday with mayors and regional council heads from Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot and the communities bordering on the Gaza Strip. He advised them to prepare their communities for an escalation in the area, including increased rocket fire.