- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

A rocket barrages rain down on Southern Israel on a daily basis (six months after Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza), it is clear that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The danger from Gaza increased exponentially with the news that last Tuesday (as Israelis were going to the polls) the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the first time fired a Katyusha rocket into Israel. Katyushas have a range that is approximately 9-12 miles — nearly double that of the Qassam rockets that Hamas and other groups have routinely fired from Gaza into Israel over the past few years. The introduction of the Katyusha potentially puts many thousands of additional Israelis in danger of being hit by rockets launched from Gaza, including residents of the coastal city of Ashkelon, with a population of almost 120,000.

Although the Israeli government has not yet made a decision to launch a ground operation against rocket-launching sites — usually located inside densely populated refugee camps near the Gaza-Israel border — a convergence of events has made such an operation increasingly likely. Statements by senior Hamas officials such as new Interior Minister Saeed Seyam that Hamas won’t arrest those who attack Israel reinforce the view of those Israelis who suggest that something like Operation Defensive Shield — the ground operation against West Bank terrorists launched four years ago — is inevitable.

Even before the Katyusha was introduced on Tuesday, senior Israel Defense Force officers and government officials have been telling journalists on a not-for-attribution basis that the Israeli government’s efforts to halt the rocket attacks were not working. For months, Israel has been using large-scale artillery barrages on unpopulated areas near the Gaza border to push the rocket launchers further away from Israeli communities. This, in conjunction with the targeted killings of terrorist leaders, has been somewhat successful in deterring attacks.

But the IDF has thus far been unsuccessful in doing what is most necessary to end the rocket attacks on Israeli towns: hitting the rocket launchers themselves. An unnamed IDF officer told the Jerusalem Post early last month that soldiers stationed near the border were virtually “helpless” when it came to stopping the Qassam rocket attacks. “Even when we spot them, the terrorists launch the rockets out of the range of our gunfire,” he said. Although there are helicopters on standby, by the time they were called in to try to intercept the terror cells, the rockets were usually already in the air.

A main terrorist target has been the Rutenberg power plant, located on the outskirts of Ashkelon. With the introduction of Katyushas, the terrorists now stand a better chance of success. A direct hit on the Rutenberg facility or on a home or school building somewhere in Southern Israel could be the event that triggers a major IDF operation against terror cells in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

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