Missile upgrade stokes intifada fears

AMID the turmoil in the Middle East, one aspect has largely been ignored: the rising tensions on Israel’s border with Gaza.

AMID the turmoil in the Middle East, one aspect has largely been ignored: the rising tensions on Israel’s border with Gaza.

Another war between Israel and Gaza is looming.

“It is only a question of time, I’m sorry to say, until we clash with Hamas again and we teach them once again the rules of engagement,” Israel’s Home Front Minister Matan Vilnai said this week.

“Our wisdom is to push it off as long as possible — I have no question it’s going to happen.”

After the first bomb in seven years at a bus station in Jerusalem, which killed a British tourist and injured 39 others, Israelis are wondering whether this is the beginning of a new intifada.

And, unnoticed through the Middle East maelstrom, another development is occurring: the upgrading of the rockets being fired from Gaza.

For several years the rockets have been Qassams, which are made in Gaza with scrap metal. They have caused civilian fatalities and wrought havoc in towns such as Sderot, but with a range of 15km they have not been able to reach larger towns such as Beersheba and Ashdod.

In recent days, however, more of the rockets have been Grads, which are professionally made, with a range of 45km.

The Grads are imported, smuggled into Gaza through tunnels.

They come mainly from China — as the ship of weapons intercepted last week showed — and Russia, via Iran.

The change in missile suggests the attacks are not from the traditional combatant, Hamas, but Islamic Jihad.

There appear to be divisions between Hamas in Gaza and those in their headquarters in Damascus, Syria. Given they live in Gaza and bear the consequences of any Israeli retaliation, Hamas leaders in Gaza tend to be less enthusiastic about attacks into Israel than Hamas leaders in Damascus, who have the luxury of not feeling Israeli responses.

There are also divisions between Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas announced this week that its Gaza-based Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, had telephoned the Islamic Jihad leader in Damascus, Ramadan Shalah, to try to convince him to call off missile attacks.

Israel’s response this week to attacks from Gaza killed eight people — four alleged Hamas militants and four civilians, including a 12-year-old boy.

Israel-based academic Jonathan Spyer believes the resumption of higher-grade missiles and a flurry of activity, including Iranian boats through the Suez Canal, is a result of Iran’s motivations rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“My sense is that with all the instability in the region the Iranians are putting their fingers in to see what they find,” he says.

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