Israel's security leaders ought not to have been surprised when Hamas fired two long-range Iranian-made Grad missiles Wednesday night, Feb. 23 at the Negev cities of Beersheba and Netivot. The attack occurred exactly when Iranian Navy commander Adm. Habibollah Sayyari was due in Syria's Latakia port to attend the welcoming party for the two Iranian warships which made it through the Suez Canal without US or Israeli interference. It also marked a fresh, redoubled Hamas offensive against Israel.
The occupants of the Beersheba home, hit by the first long-range Grad surface missile to reach the Negev city from the Gaza Strip (30 km away) since Israel's Cast Led campaign of 2009, saved themselves by using the seconds between the warning siren and the explosion to take shelter in a bomb-proof room. That was the only part of their home to survive the blast. Eleven shock victims were hospitalized along the battered street.
The town of Netivot was spared by the Grad falling outside the built-up area.
Earlier that day, a shoot-out flared at the Karni crossing when a Palestinian gang laid explosives at the border fence and followed up with mortar fire. IDF border patrols and tanks crews returned the fire, injuring 11 Palestinians. A second round of Palestinian mortar fire followed against a Shaar Hanegev kibbutz.
No Israelis were hurt in this round of incidents.
Wednesday night, Israel put the communities within range of the Gaza Strip, including the cities of Beersheba, Netivot, Ofakim, Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod, on heightened alert status for further Palestinian attacks. That night, Israeli air strikes hit a Jihad Islami missile team and then spread out to bomb Hamas command centers, which had meanwhile been hurriedly evacuated in expectation of Israel's routine aerial reprisal.
debkafile's military sources report that more aggression from the Gaza Strip is inevitable given the Netanyahu government's feeble or non-response despite the urgent need to shore up Israel's security situation continuously eroded by the turbulence in Arab capitals.
Even though it was obvious that Hamas had been strengthened by Hosni Mubarak's fall in Egypt, Israel stood by as Hamas rampaged out of Gaza and into Sinai and the Egyptian-Israeli border areas – even when a Hamas special team on Feb. 5 blew up the Egyptian pipeline which conveyed 43 percent of Israel's gas needs. Replacement sources have added close to $400 million a month to Israel's energy bill.
All Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did was to permit an additional Egyptian troop brigade and a half to enter Sinai, some of them to guard the pipeline, which Cairo shows no sign of repairing.
Western military sources report that the Iran-backed Palestinian Hamas is further exploiting the shaky situation in Cairo and Israeli inaction to double or even triple the quantities of weapons smuggled via the Suez Canal and Sinai into the Gaza Strip. One Israeli officer said he had never before seen surface-to-surface missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles secreted into Gaza in such bulk.
The free passage afforded the two Iranian warships for transiting the Suez Canal Tuesday, Feb. 22 – without Egypt or US and Israeli warships even inspecting their cargoes – has encouraged Tehran to press on with its expansionist ambitions. Hamas understood that its redoubled offensive against Israel would be most welcome. The Palestinian extremists held their fire until Tehran announced the warships had put into Latakia Wednesday and the arrival of Iran's navy chief that night. And then they went into action – first against an IDF border patrol, then to fire Grads at Beersheba and Netivot.
Israel's policy-makers have chosen to ignore the role of those two vessels as the thin edge of a wedge: They are to set up a permanent base on the Mediterranean with more Iranian naval vessels continuing to pass through the Suez Canal and joining them at Latakia.
Hamas is counting on Iran building up its military presence and on Israel to stand by helplessly – just as it did when its request to the new military rulers of Egypt to stop the Iranian flotilla's passage through Suez went unanswered.
The Palestinians ruling Gaza are sending Grad missiles as messengers to Israel that they now enjoy Iranian support close by in the Mediterranean. debkafile's military sources wonder if this message will not finally act as a wakeup call for Jerusalem.