Hamas Capabilities Catching up with Intentions; UPDATE: SEE IRON DOME TAKE OUT A QASSAM ROCKET

It might have been easy to miss this detail in the report of the Hamas attack on an Israeli school bus on 7 April, in which a 13-year-old boy and the bus driver were injured (the boy severely).  Hamas used a state-of-the-art Russian-design antitank missile, the 9M133 Kornet (NATO designation AT-14 SPRIGGAN), to attack the bus.  Israeli officials confirmed that the hit on the school bus was achieved using laser guidance, and that the missile was launched from two miles away.

The account of the attack indicates that the bus was stopped (and had just offloaded most of its 50 schoolchildren, which was why more of them weren’t injured).  So Hamas wasn’t attempting to hit a moving target. But the ability to accurately target a bus from a distance of two miles, with an effective modern weapon, is a game-changer in the Hamas campaign to target civilians.

With older weapons and planted-bomb tactics, the effects Hamas could produce were more random and less predictable.  Lobbing rockets indiscriminately into southern Israel is certainly evidence of evil intentions, but the probability of achieving specific or catastrophic damage with any individual round was low.  Mortars can be delivered with useful accuracy, but they are not missiles capable of guided flight toward a target, which amplifies the destructive effect that can be achieved for the same amount of explosive.  Bomb planting requires extensive advance planning and is not a pursuit tactic; it doesn’t adapt to changing conditions, but rather is tied to a place, and a tactical objective that is at least hours old when the bomb detonates, and usually something more like weeks old.

The difference the Kornet antitank guided missile (ATGM) makes, particularly with the laser guidance package, is that it puts accuracy, effectiveness, tactical adaptability, and standoff distance behind the vicious intentions which perennially characterize Hamas.

Implications of the Kornet ATGM

The conventional military applications are obvious.  In December 2010, the IDF chief briefed the Knesset that an Israeli Merkava III tank in southern Israel had been hit by a Kornet ATGM fired from Gaza, which appears to be the first reported instance of the weapon’s use by Hamas.  Hezbollah used the Kornet extensively in the Lebanon war in 2006, and Israel is fitting its tanks with the Trophy Active Protection System (APS) to combat the growing ATGM threat. This report, citing IDF sources, indicates that a Trophy-equipped Merkava IV defeated an ATGM (of unspecified type, but probably a Kornet) launched from Gaza in March 2011.

But the threat to the civilian population can’t be mitigated in this way.  An ATGM is not the kind of weapon Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system can counter; Iron Dome is designed to intercept short-range rockets and battlefield ballistic missiles with higher trajectories.

Iron Dome works too: second IDF “first” in the space of a few weeks

Which it did yesterday, achieving a historic first by intercepting its first rocket during the 3-hour barrage from Gaza.  (Worth another post in itself.)  The rocket-and-mortar threat remains highly active; it was reactivated in the last few weeks with a barrage level not seen since before Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009.  In a repetition of a common terrorist practice, observed from the Gaza border to Afghanistan, the Hamas artillery detachment made sure to subject the paramedics working at the scene of the bus attack to mortar fire as well.

But the introduction of the Kornet ATGM represents an even harder-to-defend threat to the civilian population. Israel enforces a 300-meter buffer zone along the border inside Gaza, but the maximum range of the Kornet is 5500 meters.  This situation will become unsustainable at some point.

The converging campaigns Israel faces

A flashpoint may be helped along by the convergence of other anti-Israel plans: an organized call for a “Third Intifada” this spring (see here and here for a sample of posts on the campaign to get the Facebook page taken down) and the next Gaza flotilla being organized by the Turkish terrorist group IHH.  Both are intended to occur in May 2011; the “Third Intifada” is billed as being launched with a “march to Palestine” starting 15 May.

I would emphasize that these are separate plans by multiple groups; there may be an element of competition in their execution, which would complicate Israel’s defense strategy.  Hamas is aligned with Iran, and the planning for the Gaza flotilla is developing along much the same lines as last year’s, which featured extensive participation by Hamas associates in Europe.  (See here, here, and here for sample documentation of the usual suspects; see also the website of this US group, which is planning to deploy the M/V Audacity of Hope.)

Turkey’s IHH group, recognized by foreign intelligence agencies as having terror ties, is deeply involved with the upcoming Gaza flotilla, as it was with the one in 2010.  Besides its extensive ties to Hamas, IHH endorses and supports radical extremists among former (and self-described current) members of Fatah, like this one

Fatah, which leads the PA, has its own vision for a “Palestinian” end-state, one that does not include a leadership role for Hamas or Iran.  There is no obvious overt-sponsorship connection between Fatah and the “Third Intifada” effort, which is apparently Sunni Arab in origin.  Indeed, many politically active Arabs view Fatah and the PA as corrupt and ineffective.  But there is a substantial Arabist contingent across the Middle East that may approve of Hamas trying to weaken Israel, but opposes the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus.

The PA’s plan, meanwhile, is to directly seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state in 2011.  Only a fool would suppose that a condition of such recognition by the UN General Assembly will be good behavior on the part of Fatah (or Hamas or Iran, for that matter) in the interim.

The bottom line for Israel, as things look today, is that there are multiple groups pursuing different but converging campaigns. That situation will be harder to deal with than one in which there is a more unified enemy.  Hamas’s particular objective appears to be drawing Israel into concerted military action – perhaps an operation in Gaza like Cast Lead.  With Hamas now able to target civilians with lethal accuracy from beyond the 300-meter buffer zone, the stakes and the opportunities for provocation have escalated significantly.

UPDATE:  The Muqata has Israeli video of Iron Dome in action.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.