Terrorist missiles have differing capabilities

by Rachelle Kliger, The Media Line

Six years after the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon, residents of Qiryat Shmonah, on Israel’s northern border, went back to the shelters this week seeking refuge from a barrage of missiles from Lebanon.

Two hundred kilometers away, residents of Sderot, on the outskirts of Gaza, are scanning the skies, waiting for the next Qassam to fall.

Half a country separates them, but these two small border towns share striking similarities. Both are bearing the brunt of two frontline conflicts and both feel they are being overlooked by the rest of Israel, which sleeps soundly without alarming sirens.

The northerners are being bombarded by Katyushas from Hizbullah; the southerners are being hit with Qassams from Gaza.

Though sometimes dismissed as an ineffective weapon, Qassams are no trivial matter. Eight Israelis have been killed by these rockets since 2004, and dozens have been wounded.

Contrary to some predictions, Qassam attacks did not stop after Israeli troops and civilians left Gaza in September 2005. Recently, they have even increased.

What’s more, the barrage of Qassam missiles has disrupted daily life, causing anxiety, damage to property, destruction of livelihoods and even driving people out of their homes to seek safety elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are currently two factors that work in favor of Gaza’s Israeli neighbors. First, the Israeli communities surrounding Gaza are few and far apart, so most of the rockets end up landing in open fields or other unpopulated areas. Second, Qassam rockets are highly inaccurate, to the extent that in many cases these rockets have even ended up landing in Palestinian territory.

But if the Palestinian rocket-launchers acquire more sophisticated missiles, such as the Katyusha rockets that are being used in the north, this will pose a much more menacing threat.

The Israeli army has so far documented two instances of Katyushas launched from Gaza into Israeli territory. The first occurred on March 28, 2006, the day of Israel’s general elections. This has compounded fears that the Katyushas will be the new threat from Gaza.

Qassams vs. Katyushas

Up until recently, the missiles launched from the Gaza Strip onto Israeli communities were variations of the Qassam. This is a largely inaccurate missile locally manufactured in Gaza.

The length of a Qassam, depending on the model, ranges from 79 cm, or 30 inches to 78 inches, and its weight can go up to 90 kilograms, or 200 pounds.

The most sophisticated version of the Qassam, known as the Qassam III, has a range of an estimated 10 kilometers (six miles).

The clear benefit of firing Katyushas rather than Qassams, from the point of view of the person launching them, is their range.

Katyushas fired onto Israel from the Palestinian areas are a Russian-made basic model called 9M22, which has a range of 20 kilometers (12 miles), double that of the Qassam. Firing Katyushas from Gaza instead of Qassams exposes significant portions of central Israel to fire.

An Israeli army spokesman said the army could still not provide information as to the model of Katyushas fired from Lebanon. It is possible Hizbullah is using a more advanced model with a longer range than those being fired from Gaza.

Both missiles leave residents very little warning time. In northern Israel, once a siren is heard, residents have just minutes to find shelter before the Katyusha falls.

Near Gaza, residents have between 15 and 20 seconds.

“The travel times are so short, you don’t have the sort of warning that you’d have with a much longer-range missile,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Although they have a relatively long range, Katyushas also have a clear shortcoming. The Katyusha is a factory-made missile, variations of which are manufactured in dozens of countries around the world.

Illegally smuggling a Katyusha rocket into the Palestinian territories is no simple task, as it is difficult to break the rocket into smaller components, if at all. Israeli security sources maintain Katyushas are smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

“It’s a medium-size rocket, so it’s not the sort of thing you could stuff down your shorts and walk with through a border control point,” Pike said.

But to build a Qassam, you need not be a rocket scientist.

“Many of the components such as the metal shell are just sheet metal,” Pike said. “The chemical components can be locally procured or smuggled in, evidently without much difficulty.”

Eying the West Bank

Even more menacing than attacks from Lebanon or from Gaza, is the notion that Palestinians will start launching missiles from the West Bank, a stone’s throw away from Israel’s densely populated center. In this case, even the Qassam can cause immense damage.

Neither the Qassam not the Katyusha is particularly accurate, Pike said.

“But when you’re firing in the general direction of a populated area, you’re probably going to hit something.”

While the possibility of bringing Katyushas into the West Bank is slim, there is already evidence that Palestinian armed groups are working on manufacturing Qassams in these areas.

Earlier this week a Palestinian group said its members successfully launched rockets from Jenin, in the north of the West Bank, into Israeli territory.

“By definition,” Pike said, “[Qassams] can be manufactured in a garage workshop and if someone knows how to manufacture them, the ‘where’ isn’t that big a challenge.”

The ‘Unconventional’ Threat

On June 29, Al-Aq’sa Martyrs Brigades, an armed Palestinian group affiliated with Fatah, announced a “new stage” in its military capabilities. The group claimed it had successfully launched into Israel a rocket, which it called Aq’sa 107, carrying a chemical warhead.

There was no confirmation of this from the Israeli side.

Technically, a Qassam or a Katyusha can carry a chemical weapon, a poisonous gas, or a biological weapon, Pike said, but this would not be advisable, given the proximity of Gaza to the areas being targeted. Sderot is located a mere kilometer from the edge of the Gaza Strip.

“Once the biological agent is unleashed it’s enormously difficult to control where that agent is going to go and who it’s going to infect,” Pike explained.

While there is some logic to launching a chemical or a biological attack from hundreds of kilometers away, launching hazardous materials from such a short distance can easily backfire on the people who launched it, and their surroundings.

“The fact that they’re talking about doing it might reflect the extent to which they don’t understand what they’re talking about,” Pike said.