The Homemade Rocket That Could Change the Mideast

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The Israeli army intercepted a truck carrying Qassam 2 missiles

It may be a bottle rocket by comparison with Saddam's Scuds, but the new Qassam-2 missile developed by Hamas could have a far greater impact. Members of the radical Islamist group in Gaza on Sunday fired two of the home-made rockets into southern Israel — and although their warheads exploded harmlessly in an open field, the political shock waves are still being felt throughout Israel. The Israeli Defense Force responded with three heavy air raids over 24 hours on Palestinian security targets in Gaza City, and sent its tanks back into the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. And that, in turn, prompted a crowd of 300 militant supporters to storm the Palestinian Authority prison in Hebron late Monday, freeing 10 Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders.

Even with a limited range of only five miles and a payload of 20 pounds of TNT, the Qassam-2 poses a serious strategic threat. The reason? If fired from the West Bank, it's capable of reaching a number of few Israeli towns. Also, response time would be limited: while Israel would have a few minutes worth of warning to deploy defenses for attacks launched from far-off Iraq or Iran, it would take mere seconds for a missile fired from the West Bank to reach Israeli territory. And while the lumbering Scud launchers can be observed from satellites, the fold-up Qassam-2 can be concealed and assembled within minutes.

The addition of this homemade missile to the arsenal of Palestinian militants marks a serious escalation of their strategy to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza by making the cost of remaining there too high. Recent months have seen a sharp increase in suicide bombings, and the Qassam-2 allows militants to strike inside Israel without having to cross heavily policed boundaries. Rocket attacks reminiscent of those used by Hezbollah in its protracted war that eventually forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon two years ago underline what Israeli commentators have called the "Lebanization" of the conflict.

The rocket attacks leave Israel facing a major dilemma. Hamas won't be deterred by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vow that any rocket attacks from the West Bank would be "an act of war to which there would be a massive response." According the Hezbollah playbook, such a response would be welcome, since it could increase the suffering of Palestinian civilians and increase support for militant groups.

But the dilemma is Arafat's, too. The Qassam-2 attacks are further confirmation that Hamas has little interest in any cease-fire being pursued by Arafat. The PA announced on Sunday that it had arrested Adnan al-Ghul, the Hamas engineer responsible for the Qassam-2, but that's not enough for Israel, which will continue to hold the PA responsible for the missile threat. An escalation of violence may leave Arafat further isolated by the U.S. and Israel, perhaps putting his prospects of negotiating his way to Palestinian statehood irrevocably beyond his grasp.