Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Palestinians Fire First Katyusha from Gaza to Israel

Amos Harel and Michal Greenberg, Ha'aretz:
Palestinians have for the first time fired a Katyusha rocket, a much longer-range projectile than the Qassam, from the Gaza Strip into Israel, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed last night. The army is checking whether the 122-mm. rocket, which landed without exploding in an open area south of Ashkelon, is of Iranian manufacture. READ MORE

The Katyusha was one of three rockets that were launched from the northern Gaza Strip yesterday morning. The IDF says they were all most likely launched by the Islamic Jihad, which had vowed to try to disrupt yesterday's elections.

Although some of the media knew a Katyusha had been fired, the military censor did not allow publication of the report until 8 P.M., thus lessening any possible effect on voting patterns. Israeli right-wingers had been warning of Katyusha rockets from the Gaza Strip for a long time.

Both IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and former Shin Bet Security service head Avi Dichter have hinted that Katyushas might be used in the Gaza Strip and that the terror groups would be able to extend the Qassam range to 15 kilometers.

In recent years the Palestinian Authority and terror organizations have tried on numerous occasions to smuggle Katyushas into the territories, but until now, it was thought that Israel had succeeded in foiling all of the attempts. In January, 2002, dozens of Katyushas were found aboard the Karine A arms ship, when it was intercepted and impounded by Israeli forces. It is not known how many rockets are in the hands of terror organizations in the Gaza Strip. It is believed that the Katyusha fired from Gaza was smuggled into the Strip, apparently across the Gaza-Egypt border from Sinai.

The Katyusha launch places Israel in a dilemma, especially if it is repeated. Its longer range would put a much larger number of Israeli towns and villages, including the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, in danger of attack from Gaza. If Israel responds harshly because of this, it will be the first security crisis the new government faces.

IDF troops and Israel Police were on high alert yesterday as Israelis headed for the polls. The Katyusha launch was the most salient security-related incident of an otherwise quiet Election Day. Forces will remain on high alert for the coming days.

Meanwhile, four people were killed in two separate incidents yesterday when Qassam rockets and munitions unexpectedly detonated in the south of the country. Two Bedouin were killed in the western Negev when a Qassam rocket unexpectedly detonated as they were attempting to salvage it, IDF sources said. The casualties were identified as a shepherd, Salaam Ziadin, and his 16-year-old son Khalid. The two were attempting to lift the rocket, which they had found lying in an open area, when it exploded. A woman also suffered from shock.