Iron Dome - Tal Cohen
An Iron Dome battery on the outskirts of Ashkelon. Photo by Tal Cohen
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A lone rocket was fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning, in the first such incident in the three months since Operation Pillar of Defense .

The rocket landed in an open area south of Ashkelon and caused no casualties or damage.

In response, Israel scaled back operations at its border crossings with Gaza. But it still views the launch as an isolated incident, meaning no more substantial response is required at this point.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the launch. Officially, this organization is Fatah’s military wing, but in practice, its Gaza branch no longer belongs to Fatah, which lost control over the Strip when Hamas launched an armed coup in 2007.

Instead, the Gaza branch now maintains a complicated relationship with Hamas. In recent years, it has periodically claimed responsibility for rocket launches, but in some of those cases, the rockets were fired on orders from Hamas.

Senior Israeli government officials say Hamas was not behind Tuesday’s launch and that Hamas’ leadership in Gaza still wants to maintain the cease-fire that ended the November conflict, which entailed a barrage of 1,500 rockets fired at Israel, including Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem area, and Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials and what the army said were terror sites in Gaza.

Alternatively, it could be that Hamas has turned a blind eye to Tuesday’s launch, which must be seen in the context of the recent escalation in the West Bank that was sparked by a hunger strike among Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and the unrelated death of Arafat Jaradat in Megiddo Prison on Saturday. Shortly before Jaradat’s death, a senior Islamic Jihad official in Gaza warned that his organization would respond with rocket launches if any of the hunger strikers died.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad possess M-75s, which appears to be the type of rocket that was fired Tuesday, and it’s possible that one such rocket was transferred to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The launch could also have been carried out by members of one of the two larger organizations who disguised their affiliation to minimize the damage to their own groups. Some rockets of this type were fired during Pillar of Defense.

The M-75, which has an eight-inch warhead, is a local imitation of Iran’s Fajr-5 rocket and has an estimated range of 60 to 70 kilometers. But this rocket was fired from the southern portion of the Gaza Strip, near Rafah, so it landed near Ashkelon rather than the southern outskirts of the greater Tel Aviv area.

The weight of the M-75’s warhead is relatively small: about 80 kilograms, roughly half the weight of a standard rocket this size.

Given Israel’s assessment that this was an isolated event, its response to the launch was relatively restrained: an announcement that the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing would be closed and that passenger traffic through the Erez crossing would be limited to humanitarian cases only. These restrictions will presumably be lifted soon.

So far, Israel isn’t implementing the policy it announced after the cease-fire was declared in late November. At that time, it threatened a harsh response to any rocket fire from Gaza.

Tuesday’s launch wasn’t preceded by a warning siren, nor were any Iron Dome batteries stationed in the area. Two Iron Dome batteries were recently moved up north, due to the ongoing tensions with Syria and last month’s attack on an arms convoy along the Syrian-Lebanese border, which foreign reports have attributed to Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday that another Iron Dome battery would soon be deployed in the greater Tel Aviv area as part of its routine operational testing of the antimissile system.

The primary reason none of the batteries were stationed in the south is that they are deployed in accordance with the army’s situation assessment, and until Tuesday, the Gaza front had been quiet.

But a report on Army Radio revealed another explanation: It turns out that one battery had been out of commission for almost a month. That battery was stored at an air force base in the south in a facility that wasn’t well protected against rain. The battery’s computer shorted out, causing about NIS 1 million in damage and putting the battery out of operation for a month. Only now that it has returned to operation did the military censor allow publication of the story.