The latest flareup between Israel and the two leading terrorist organizations of the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was the shortest and most violent of eight foregoing rounds in a 13-month period. It was also the most revealing, uncovering the relative capabilities of Israel’s Defense Forces and their foes, the Palestinian terrorist movements and their patrons, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah.
DEBKA Weekly’s military analysts offer an initial evaluation:
1. Iran and Hizballah are still the main puppeteers manipulating Hamas and Jihad in the Gaza Strip. They pull unseen wires whenever they decide to plunge southern Israel and the IDF into a fresh escalation of hostilities and then withdraw at a peak moment, relying on Egypt and Qatar to wind the crisis down to a temporary lull in their own self-interest.
2. This latest round was triggered on Friday, May 3, by Jihad marksmen shooting at Israeli soldiers securing the Gaza border. An officer and a servicewoman were injured. Israeli fighter jets went into rapid action against Hamas military compounds. This time, the terrorists had no time to evacuate and two Ezz a-din Al-Qassam activists were killed – whereupon the two Palestinian groups launched a massive rocket onslaught on Saturday morning against a widening range of Israel’s southern population centers within a 40-km radius. Altogether, 690 rockets and mortar shells were fired in 36 hours at regions abutting the Gaza Strip as well as important and more distant towns like Ashkelon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Beersheba.
Comparisons between the intensity and scale of rockets fired in the eight rounds of rocket barrages attest to a definite upgrade in the military capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Both have reinvented themselves as paramilitary organizations. Hamas can today muster 20,000 men under arms and Jihad, 10.000, and both have advanced their capacity for conducting massive rocket barrages.
May – 150 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza.
July – 200
Aug – 180
Oct – 40
Nov – 480
March – 70
May – 690
Total of 1,835 rockets in 13 months
3. This ascending curveand the rockets’ condensation into a 36-hour windowsharpened their destructive effectandattested to the terrorists’ forward planning and newfound professional skills. For the first time, they were shooting rockets in tight clusters. On Sunday night for instance, they launched three volleys of 60 rockets in one minute, i. e., one rocket per second. They were grouped tightly over two targets, the towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod, as a means of maximizing the casualties and the damage to property. This tactic was moreover designed to diminish the defensive capacity of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, whose numbers are necessarily limited.
4. Ten batteries are currently available for deployment, with five more planned and another four modified versions to protect maritime assets at sea.
An Iron Dome battery is a high-cost weapon – $80m apiece for a single battery. Its production is time-consuming as is the training of its crews. Once deployed, every missile fired by a battery consumes $100,000 ($159,99 according to Pentagon calculations). Therefore, the roughly 250 missiles fired by Dome missiles to ward off the Palestinians’ latest rocket offensive, sliced at least $25m from Israel’s defense budget in 36 hours.
Israel has come to rely heavily on Iron Dome for protecting population centers against missile and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, as well as potential pro-Iranian and Hizballah aggression from its northern borders. This weapon is also vital in the defense of strategic facilities and essential utilities in Israel’s heartland, including large urban centers, seaports and the international airport This vital network leaves no more than three or four batteries available for defending the South against its frequent battering from Gaza.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources estimate that Iranian missile experts will have employed Hizballah spies to seek out holes in the Iron Dome’s defensive wall and estimated that it may be partially overwhelmed if challenged by heavy, tightly concentrated rocket barrages. Therefore, whereas in previous rocket offensives, Iron Dome scored 59 to 75 percent hits, it managed somewhat less – 45-65 percent in the latest round. In future therefore, Palestinian rocket strategists will fashion rocket barrages in tight clusters over one or two targets in other parts of Israel in order to confound Israel’s expensive Iron Dome system. At the same time, the geniuses who designed this weapon are hard at work to repair this apparent weakness and adapt it to the next challenges.
5. It must also be said that Hamas and Jihad hoodwinked both Israel and US intelligence estimates about the volume of their rocket stocks: Iran and Hizballah planted fake news pretending that the two Palestinian organizations they support in Gaza were running out of rockets – and components for their assembly. Their story was that Iran, hit hard by US sanctions, could no longer afford to send rockets to Gaza and the Egyptian blockade of the Sinai supply route had finally taken effect. The IDF was taken in by this false picture and unready for the heavy blitz when it began on Saturday, May 4.
Iran furthermore was able to slip to Jihad behind Israel’s back a new Badr 3 short-range missile, with an extra-destructive warhead of 250-kilos of explosives, compared with their regular rockets’ 40-kilo warheads. This weapon debuted in Yemen in April in the hands of the Houthi insurgents. Jihad was the first Palestinian terrorist group to receive this high-caliber missile, which has another advantage for its users: It explodes 20 meters over its target and spews a shower of 1,400 pieces of shrapnel. This greatly enhances its lethality and capacity for damage over a wide area, as Israelis under attack in Ashkelon and Ashdod discovered. The shrapnel caught civilians short on their way to shelters and damaged a large number of buildings and vehicles in a trice.