This article first appeared in AWIN First.
Unlike previous lightweight and compact weapons that proved highly suitable for guerilla warfare techniques, the Iranian-made Fajr rockets currently supplied to Hamas in Gaza are significantly more devastating than earlier Grad and Qassams.
Both Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 carry a 90-kg high explosive warhead with massive fragmentation sheets made of steel balls that create extensive collateral damage. Analyses of such attacks from 2006 to this year indicate these rockets could be equipped with a delay fuse to improve building penetration. The larger warhead and extended range means these rockets and their launchers are significantly larger and heavier, thus becoming more visible targets. Lifting the rocket for transportation or positioning requires special machinery (crane, launchers), therefore limiting movement, deployment and relocation of the weapon. Employing persistent surveillance over Gaza by various means, Israel has managed to locate the storage and firing positions of those rockets, preparing the target bank for the swift opening attack on Gaza that virtually eliminated a massive long-range rocket threat on central Israel, like the air force did in the first 24 hr. of the 2006 Lebanon war.
Although only few of these Fajr rockets were actually fired at Israel, the ongoing Operation “Pillar of Defense” campaign has evolved around those rockets. Based on intelligence gathered over years, Israel effectively eliminated these “strategic weapons” in a swift opening attack on the afternoon of Nov. 14, leaving Palestinian militants with the Grad rockets (and locally improvised Qassams). The accuracy and effectiveness of the Grad attacks improved through the first week of fighting.
Implementing lessons learned in Lebanon and after Operation Cast Lead in 2009, as well as their previous experience with Israel’s Iron Dome active counter-rocket system, the militants began to fire their rockets in salvos of six or more, attempting to saturate the defenses. In a single attack on Beer Sheba they fired a 16-rocket salvo, of which an Iron Dome battery successfully intercepted 12. Only three rockets evaded the system and hit the city, causing significant damage but no loss of life. Moreover, the Iron Dome radar reported the launch site instantly, enabling an immediate counterattack.
Moving to the multiple-launch rocket systems was not easy for terrorist groups that relied on leaving few traces for their own survival, as the Israelis have already developed improved sensor-to-shooter counterstrike techniques to address such targets since 2006. Based on Hamas propaganda videos, for such attacks the Palestinians employed six-barrel launchers dug into the ground, which pop up for a few seconds for firing. To gain experience with their new long-range weapons and assess the capabilities of Israel’s defenses, the militants also fired locally improvised 8-in. rockets (Qassam M75/M76) reaching a similar range, but lacking the warhead of the Iranian Fajr-5. This rocket was first fired into the Mediterranean Sea a few weeks ago and detected by Israeli surveillance.
After a few days of concentrating rocket attacks on Israel’s south, first attempts were made to extend ranges toward the large Tel Aviv population center 70 km north. The first launches toward Tel Aviv and later Jerusalem (which actually impacted near Palestinian West Bank villages) failed to get results, falling on open ground or into the Mediterranean Sea. But sporadic attempts continued.
The fifth Iron Dome unit deployed to defend central Israel intercepted at least one rocket only two hr. after being delivered by Rafael in unprecedented record time. This unit was enhanced with new capabilities tailored specifically to enable it to engage threats at extended range. In the days that followed, this unit intercepted additional Fajr-5 rockets but failed to intercept one Fajr-5 on Nov. 20, which landed on a six-floor apartment building in Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv. It devastated three floors and lightly wounded only four civilians. The astounding minimal casualty score throughout the massive attack period was attributed to blast-protected rooms that became mandatory in all new buildings in Israel since 1992.
Credit: Natan Flayer