by Arieh O'Sullivan
The flare-up in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza that left 10 dead before a ceasefire gradually took hold on Sunday was as much a showcase for military technology as it was a forceful statement of the two sides' political agenda.
Islamic Jihad, the biggest of the Gaza-based Palestinian movements responsible for the three-day barrage, showed off a multi-barreled rocket launcher mounted on a light truck, a weapon platform not seen to date in Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel put its Iron Dome anti-rocket network into use for the third time since it was unveiled in April.
All told, the new technology didn't produce a hands' down victory for either side. Palestinians launched a total of 40 rockets - 18 of them the more sophisticated Grad missile - before the truce set in. Iron Dome succeeded in blocking missiles launched at the city of Beersheva and other less populated areas but failed to block rockets aimed at the port city of Ashdod.
All told, nine Palestinians - all of them militants hit in air raids by Israeli fighter jets and drones - were killed as was an Israeli civilian who died from a rocket attack in Ashkelon.
"We're not talking about a changing balance of power, but a situation where there is more danger for Israeli ground forces and the Air Force. It makes the situation [for Israel] more problematic," Yoram Schweitzer, the head of a terrorism project at the Israeli Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), told The Media Line.
It is premature to say what the ultimate impact of the new weaponry will be on the simmering conflict between Israel and the militant Islamists in control of the Gaza Strip. But the enhanced capabilities of Hamas and other groups has already shifted the fighting on the Israeli side to bigger population centers and is impinging on Israel's once unchallenged mastery of the skies.
The Palestinians military technology advances aren't the fruit of any research and development but of the chaos the enveloped Libya during the civil war between Muamar Al-Qaddafi and rebel forces that left weapons depots unguarded. Arms control experts say weaponry has been smuggled out of the country across Egypt, itself gripped by political instability, and is making its way to Gaza and Sudan.
In the last month, Egyptian security forces have intercepted weapons being smuggled across the Sinai Peninsula, including eight anti-aircraft missiles and four shoulder launchers and an unspecified number of surface-to-air missiles two weeks ago.
Tellingly, the truck-mounted multi-rocket launcher displayed by Islamic Jihad was a kind employed often in the Libyan civil war and by Lebanon's Hizbullah Islamic movement. In August, during the last confrontation between Israel and Palestinians groups, militants fired a missile an Israeli attack helicopter. It missed, but it was the first time Palestinians used an anti-aircraft missile.
Hamas acquired its first SA-7 surface-to-air missiles last year, according to Israeli assessments, but the new Libyan weaponry it is believed to have acquired is the Igla-Ss. It is a man-portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile popular with militant groups and known as the SA-24 in one of its variants. SA-24s not only pose a threat to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft as well.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently promised $140 million in aid to Libya's transitional government that includes help in finding and destroying abandoned weapons, particularly surface-to-air missiles. But many have already leaked out and Libya's new leadership is still struggling to restore law and order.
Moreover, Gaza itself remains a free-for-all for militant groups. Although Hamas has ruled since 2007 after seizing control of the enclave from the Palestinian Authority, a host of groups operate more or less freely so long as they don't challenge Hamas' political authority. It was those groups, led by Islamic Jihad, that analysts and Israeli military officials say was responsible for the latest outbreak of fighting.
These groups have been the beneficiaries of the arms train arriving from Libya as much as Hamas, said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.
"Islamic Jihad is politically small, but militarily it is approaching Hamas in size and in terms of capabilities," Spyer told The Media Line. "They are a well-armed and organized operation with a different political agenda than Hamas."
While Hamas is assessed by most analysts as wanting quiet with Israel to enjoy the popularity it gleaned from the prisoner swap with Israel this month, Islamic Jihad is more closely linked with Iran than Hamas and is moved to take action for reasons remote from Gaza's immediate needs, he said.
Meanwhile, analysts and the army judged Iron Dome to be on the whole a success given the limitations under which it is operating. Only two Iron Dome batteries are operational now, which is insufficient to cover the areas in range of Palestinian rockets. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the deployment of a third battery and promised a fourth by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai termed the failure of one of the batteries to intercept rockets over Ashdod in the current fighting a "technical failure" that had been addressed.
"We know limitations and the number of batteries that can be deployed now is limited. It's not supposed cover everything, nor can it cover everything," said INSS's Schweitzer.
Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel's Arrow missile-defense program, says Iron Dome has so far proven its effectiveness, citing the results of the systems' deployment in April and August when Israel was last hit by missile barrages. In April, the system took out nine out of 10 missiles and in August 18 out of 20, he said, citing unofficial reports.
Comparing fatalities from rockets in those two incidents with eight years of attacks from Gaza in 2001 and 2009 as well as during the 2006 Lebanon war, Rubin concluded in an article "Iron Dome in Action: A Preliminary Evaluation" for Bar-Ilan University's Began-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies that Iron Dome reduced rockets' lethality by about two thirds.
"Israelis and Palestinians Deploy New Technology in Fighting"