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7 Jan, 2009 13:26

Hamas secret weapon aimed at Tel Aviv?

Hamas secret weapon aimed at Tel Aviv?

The ’secret weapon’ that Hamas has hinted at unleashing before the Gaza fighting is over is apparently a long-range rocket. But Israeli officials say the likely target is not the nuclear reactor at Dimona but Tel Aviv.

Hamas leaders have warned that they have ‘surprises’" in store for Israel and members of its military wing have said they possess rockets that can reach deeper than the rockets presently being fired, which have a 30-mile range. The longer-range rockets are believed to reach about 45 miles, which would put both Dimona and Tel Aviv within range. However, the poor accuracy of the rockets would make the odds of hitting a single structure like the reactor unrealistic.

Several rockets fired last week at Beersheba, more than halfway to Dimona, missed the sprawling city altogether. Even if the reactor were hit, the structure is believed to have been “hardened” to sustain any bomb strike short of a “bunker buster”. In any case, the nuclear devices the facility is believed to have produced would more than likely have been distributed long since to other locations.

By contrast, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is too big to miss. Before the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah had acquired long-range rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv from Lebanon, but the Israeli Air Force knocked them out in the opening attack of the war. As far as is known, Hamas’ long-range rockets have not been neutralised by the Israeli air attacks. Hamas is believed planning to fire whatever it has left in its arsenal just before a new ceasefire comes into effect in order to demonstrate that it is still in fighting condition when the closing bell sounds.

The rockets are a potent psychological weapon and they oblige Israel to take costly civil defence measures, including the construction of shelters and a bomb-proof room in every new apartment or house. However, the rockets are not very potent as a battlefield weapon. Two major air force bases are within range of the rockets already fired by Hamas in the current clash but there is no report of them being hit. The chances of a strike on a runway would appear negligible given the rockets’ inaccuracy.

Nevertheless, as Israel has now pointedly made clear, the harassment of a civilian population with random cross-border rocket firings is intolerable. More accurate rockets in Hamas’ hands in the future would also constitute a major military threat. For this reason, any agreement ending the Gaza operation must, in Israel’s eyes, include provisions that would end the smuggling of rocket parts across the Egyptian border into the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said that Hamas had exploited a six-month ceasefire with Israel last year to smuggle in rockets with double the range of its previous rockets.

“Preventing a Hamas arms build-up is the necessary foundation of any new arrangement,” he said. “Under no circumstances will we agree to a new period of calm that will allow (Hamas) to increase their range so that we have rockets falling on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.”

The smuggling of rockets has been going on through tunnels dug under the border between Egypt and Gaza. The 11 kilometre (6.5 mile) border strip, known as the Philadelphi Route, was to have remained under Israeli control under the Oslo accord in 1994. In pulling out of the Gaza Strip four years ago, however, Israel vacated the Philadelphi Route. Since then, hundreds of tunnels have been dug under the border.

Diplomats currently trying to reach a new ceasefire are focusing their attention on devising a realistic scheme that would put an end to the arms smuggling. Proposals range from the deployment of American army engineers with sophisticated, tunnel-detecting equipment on the Egyptian side of the border, the use of dogs to ferret out tunnels and the positioning of an international force in Gaza to ensure Hamas does not re-arm.

“I’m convinced there are solutions,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week in Jerusalem.

Abraham Rabinovich for RT