January 2, 2009
Growing concern over Hamas’s new arsenal
James Hider in Beersheba
There were growing fears in Israel last night that Hamas missiles could threaten its top-secret nuclear facility at Dimona.
Rocket attacks from Gaza have forced Israelis to flee in ever greater numbers and military chiefs have been shaken by the size and sophistication of the militant group’s arsenal.
In Beersheba, until a few days ago a sleepy desert town in southern Israel, there is little sign of the 186,000 inhabitants. Schools are closed and the streets of shuttered shops echo with the howl of sirens warning of incoming rockets.
Israeli planes, meanwhile, began a new stage yesterday in their offensive on Gaza, killing Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas official. The one-tonne bomb in Jabaliya is also understood to have killed two of his four wives and four of his twelve children. More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in the six days of Israeli attacks.
Despite a diplomatic mission by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, to Paris, the Israeli army continued to muster thousands of troops and scores of tanks along Gaza’s border for a possible ground offensive. Israel’s airstrikes are designed to blunt Hamas’s capacity to fire its new Grad missiles deep into its territory. The weapons are smuggled in through tunnels and by sea, replacing homemade Qassam rockets.
Israeli officials say that Hamas has also acquired dozens of Iranian-made Fajr-3 missiles with an even longer range. Many fear that as the group acquires ever more sophisticated weaponry it is only a matter of time before the nuclear installation at Dimona, 20 miles east of Beersheba, falls within its sights. Dimona houses Israel’s only nuclear reactor and is believed to be where it stores warheads for its nuclear missiles.
Israel’s worst nightmare is that soon all its cities will be within range either of the Hezbollah Katyushas arrayed on the Lebanese border to the north or the increasingly sophisticated missiles stockpiled by Hamas to the south. Both groups have links to Israel’s archenemy Iran.
Israel has said that its aim is to smash Hamas’s rocket-firing capability but also to topple the hardline Islamist regime that seized power in the Gaza Strip last year after bloody street battles with its secular rivals Fatah. Until that goal is achieved, many in Beersheba are packing their bags and heading for Tel Aviv or Eilat.
“Maybe 30 or 40 per cent of people have left the city,” said Ron Shukron, 26, running one of the few grocery shops still open. As he spoke a siren echoed through the empty streets. With only 15 seconds to take cover, he stepped under a reinforced support beam in the ceiling. Seconds later came the dull thud of a rocket exploding on the edge of town.
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