Israel launched its most aggressive airstrikes in 20 months on Tuesday, attacking at least 486 targets over the past two days in an effort to degrade Hamas’s arsenal, the military said.
Palestinians have fired recently acquired long-range M-302 rockets for the first time, Israel’s military said. With a range of 93 miles, one of them struck Hadera, a coastal city between Tel Aviv and Haifa that is 73 miles north of Gaza.
In the last major military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, the rockets went only as far as the Tel Aviv area, about 40 miles from Gaza, and around Jerusalem, about 60 miles away.
The newly acquired rockets put about two thirds of Israel’s eight million people into Gaza’s range of fire. That puts increased pressure on Israel to neutralize the threat.
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“We essentially characterize this as a game changer,” said Libby Weiss, an Israeli military spokeswoman. “The fact that there are 5 million Israelis that fall under the threat of these rockets poses a significant threat.”
Israel’s air force, during the first two days of the operation, hit what it said were militants, rocket-launching sites, military equipment and smuggling tunnels.
For the second straight day, air raid sirens wailed across Israel’s largest metropolitan area, Tel Aviv, and other cities and towns in central and southern Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted at least 21 rockets on Wednesday, the military said.
No casualties or major damage have been reported.
Israel’s bombardment has killed at least 61 people in Gaza since Monday, Gaza Health officials said. Hafez Hamid, a top member of the Palestinian militant group Islamist Jihad, was among the dead, according to the Israeli military. There were no reports of Israeli casualties.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and through cycles of brief wars and cease fires, Hamas has managed to amass an arsenal of 10,000 rockets, according to Israel military estimates.
They include thousands of Gaza-made Qassam models that can travel about 12 miles to reach the small Israeli town of Sderot in the south and the coastal city of Ashkelon. Thousands of midrange Grad rockets can hit the southern Israeli cities of Beersheva and Ashdod, the latter home to one of the country’s main ports.
In the 2012 conflict, Gaza militants for the first time set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv by firing locally made M75 rockets, which were based on the Iranian Fajr-5 rockets.
They have a range of 47 miles and reached to Jerusalem’s outskirts.
The rockets never landed in Tel Aviv—they were either shot down by the Iron Dome interceptor system or landed in the sea. But even a brief threat to the country’s economic nerve center marked a symbolic achievement for Hamas. Palestinian celebrated with mock-ups of the missile.
Israeli media have reported that the Syrian-made M-302s were smuggled into Gaza late last year with the help of Iran. The rocket, like others in Hamas’ arsenal, isn’t guided but aimed. Israeli researchers estimate Hamas has several dozen but isn’t yet able to produce it locally.
In a widely publicized marine intercept at sea in March, Israeli naval commandos commandeered the Klos-C and seized M-302s which Israel said originated in Tehran and were destined for Gaza.
According to Israel’s Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hamas has hundreds of the M75 rockets.
With the addition of the M-302s, Hamas can target well beyond Tel Aviv to reach every major population center.
Even with just a couple dozen, it marks a strategic shift that could force Israel’s hand to move from air assaults to a ground offensive, analysts said.
“If we’re talking about dozens of rockets, I don’t think Israel will be able not to respond. My understanding is the Iron Dome won’t be able to cover everything,” said Ehud Eiran, a political-science lecturer at Haifa University.
“Because it’s threatening the major population center, the major business centers, in a way Israel’s connection to the world at Ben Gurion Airport—it will make it very hard for the government not to take any possible action to stop it, including a ground assault on Gaza.”
The range of Gaza’s rockets demonstrated this week caught the Israeli public off guard. Israeli military spokesmen said military intelligence knew the rockets had made their way into Gaza.
But security officials never made that knowledge available to the general public.
Yiftah Shapir, a weapons expert at The Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University in Israel, said the threat posed by the M-302 isn’t only in the range of fire but in its accuracy. Though they are not guided, he said they are much more accurate than other rockets in Hamas’s arsenal.
Mr. Shapir said Iron Dome has helped reduce the toll on humans and property, while advances in radar technology in air defense systems has lessened the psychological impact.
“Iron Dome has been very successful this time and has managed to prevent most of the direct damage to human life and even direct damage to property.”
With the latest major confrontation between Israel and Hamas entering its third day, Israel stressed that it would expand its operations.
Since the Islamist movement took full control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has mounted two other major military operations to stop rocket fire into its southern towns and to weaken, if not end, Islamist rule in the coastal strip. The longest operation, stretching 22 days from December 2008 into the new year, ended in a cease-fire and the deaths of at least 1,166 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
After the teenagers were kidnapped on June 12, Israeli security forces mounted a crackdown on Hamas members in the West Bank. In reply, Islamic Jihad and some smaller militant factions that operate in the Gaza Strip resumed rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel.
They escalated after a Palestinian teenager was killed a week ago in what Israeli police suspect was retaliation for the killing of the three Israeli teens. Six Israeli suspects have been arrested.