Hamas prepared itself well for the Grad rocket attack on the mall in Ashkelon that wounded 15 Israelis and left dozens more suffering from anxiety. Three days ago already, Hamas started to target Ashkelon, and as it turns out the fire was not coincidental. It appears Hamas was preparing to welcome President Bush with an impressive rocket attack, and therefore it prepared thoroughly. The Israeli response is expected to be immediate, although it will not be in full force.
By analyzing the events of the last few days, we can see that rocket cells test-fired several upgraded Qassams (that simulate Grad rockets) from the Beit Lahia area at southern Ashkelon. The Qassams missed, but every strike was more accurate than the previous ones. Three days later, with some help from the Israeli media as well as their own observations, the Palestinians were able to come up with the right firing angle.
On Wednesday, they took one of the roughly 200 Grad rockets they possess out of the warehouse and fired it with lethal precision, based on the firing data of previous days, at the Ashkelon mall. These 122 millimeter Katyusha rockets, which are known as Grads, are not very accurate, yet the mall was a large enough target. And as opposed to the Qassams, whose warheads contain roughly seven kilos (16 pounds) of explosives, the Iranian Grad’s warhead contains more than 20 kilos (44 pounds) of industrial explosives, which enabled it to penetrate the mall’s thick walls and cement ceiling. The Rocket’s heavy weight and its relatively long flight time further boosted its penetration capability.
This isn’t the first time Hamas welcomes foreign leaders, both Western and Arab, with rocket barrages. This was the case every time we saw a summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. This is what Hizbullah used to do in the 1990s - typical practice for radical Islamic groups, particularly in relation to regional meetings with the participation of the president of the United States, the “Great Satan.”
The objective of Wednesday’s attack, as was the case in the past, was to undertake a strategic provocation that conveys the message that Hamas is not scared and is in fact the true power in the region – and hence, any regional move that does not take Hamas into account is doomed for failure, because the group has the power to light up the area.
Another objective was to steal the show and direct all attention at Hamas and its demands. Such attack not only scores prestige points for Hamas on the Palestinian street, but also wins it special appreciation from its patron, Iran. Through the Iranian Grad fired by Hamas, Iran makes it clear to the Americans that they will have to take Tehran into consideration with any step they take in any corner of the Middle East
Hamas’ message: Truce on our termsThe attack on Ashkelon had another objective: Forcing Israel to agree to a ceasefire in line with all the terms agreed upon by Hamas and Egypt. The rocket strike was Hamas’ response, on the ground, to the terms presented by Israel Monday night to Egyptian mediator Omar Suleiman. Hamas is unwilling to tie the release of Gilad Shalit to the lull agreement and is unwilling to obligate to end arms smuggling and the process of building its military strength.
If Israel is unwilling to accept Hamas’ terms, it will see Grad attacks on Ashkelon, Hamas says, and we’ll see who breaks first. Seemingly this is a gamble on the part of Hamas, which fears a large-scale Israeli operation. However, the organization estimates, and apparently rightfully so, that it can push Israel a bit more before it truly decides to realize its threat and embark on a major Gaza operation.
Hamas estimates that as long as President Bush and other leaders are in Israel, the Israeli government would not respond with a fierce military operation. Israel faces a complicated dilemma: Should the IDF embark on a wide-scale Gaza operation at this time, the international show of support could turn into a footnote on the media front. Israel needs this show of support mostly in order to enlist international support for the struggle against Iranian nukes. On the other hand, should Israel not respond immediately, Hamas may continue to launch lethal rockets for a few more days at least. That is, strategic long-term considerations clash with immediate tactical considerations.
Israel still wishes to secure a lull in line with the terms it presented, and therefore it will escalate its operations gradually to press Hamas. In the next few days we will likely see intensive maneuvers from the air and on the ground against Hamas’ leadership and the group’s infrastructure. Southern residents should take this into account – they must assume that a Qassam or mortar shell barrage could land at any moment in the coming days and conduct themselves accordingly.