You wouldn’t know it from the images of Israeli jets bombing Gaza. But for Hamas, the current war has produced a significant victory.
When the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, its primitive rockets had a range of no more than 25 miles. They couldn’t hit Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial capital, even though the city wasn’t all that far away. In the last week, however, Hamas missiles have traveled more than 90 miles to the outskirts of Israel’s northern city of Haifa. They’ve even landed near the home of Israel’s nuclear program in Dimona, putting all of Israel’s major cities in range of the group’s weapons.
The attacks haven’t exactly been deadly. Israel’s rocket and missile defense systems have intercepted those rockets in danger of hitting population centers. Other Hamas rockets have landed in open fields. And Hamas still lacks technology to aim their missiles in a sophisticated way. In contrast, there are more than 200 Palestinians who have been killed in the fighting whereas the first Israeli was killed in the conflict on Tuesday.
But even still, Hamas can claim today something it could not before this conflict began: No one in Israel is safe from their missiles.
That fact is something of an intelligence failure for Israel. Gaza, the strip of land where Hamas has been the sovereign since 2007, is one of the most monitored places on Earth. And for Israel’s intelligence and security agencies, stopping Hamas from obtaining lethal missile technology has been a very high priority. On Wednesday, Israel's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror told Israel's Channel 2 that the range of Hamas missiles surprised him.
Current and former Israeli officials told The Daily Beast in reporting from Israel last year for example that special spy planes, part of what is known as the “Eye of the Sky Squadron,” buzz above the clouds capturing grainy video of suspected militia leaders. Not far below are hot-air balloons affixed with cameras and other sensors that can produce thermal images from a crowded marketplace. There are also drones which vacuum the wireless spectrum, picking up tweets, emails, and Skype chats. On the ground in Gaza there are fake cell towers that intercept cellphone calls by tricking a cellphone to send the signal to a base station that feeds them to Shabak’s super computers. Beneath the ground, special circuits siphon off streams of data from two fiber-optic cables that provide high-speed Internet access inside Gaza.
But all of this surveillance has not stopped Hamas from threatening all of Israel with its missiles. During the last battle between Israel and Gaza at the end of 2012, Hamas for the first time fired a missile that hit inside Tel Aviv. The fact that Hamas could hit Tel Aviv was a cause for celebration for the group’s leaders. A local perfume maker even produced a special scent for men and women named after the rocket, M75.
At that time, the president of Egypt was Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same global movement from which Hamas sprang. For the most part, Morsi allowed the tunnels and border crossings between Gaza and Egypt to remain open, allowing Hamas to import missiles with relative ease. After Morsi was ousted in a coup last summer, the Egyptian government has isolated Gaza, cutting off the southern supply route.
Nonetheless, Israeli officials say Hamas is now assembling their rocket arsenal inside local factories instead of relying on Iran and other countries to import them.
"The vast majority of the expertise and the basic materials arrive in Gaza from Iran via Sudan,” an Israeli intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “It is important to note that the Egyptians, under General Sisi, have worked to limit the amount of arms smuggling over the course of the last year. As a result of this, most of the rockets coming from Gaza today are homemade, but utilize Iranian expertise."
Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy minister of defense, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Iran has helped Hamas improve their missiles in two ways. Iranian specialists have “produced in Iran grad missiles, dividing them into four parts in order to smuggle it through the tunnels,” he said. “They specially manufactured a long-range missile smuggled to the tunnels, then they sent to Gaza experts who helped them to develop the longer-range rockets.”
But there were still important questions the IDF had on the eve of the war about the missiles in Gaza.
“We knew they had longer-range rockets, we did not know if they were locally made or smuggled in,” said Uzi Rubin, the chief of Israel's missile defense organization in the 1990s. Last week, the well-connected military correspondent for Ha’Aretz, Amos Harel, wrote, “The IDF has only partial information on the location of the longer-range launchers” used by Hamas.
A month before the current war between Israel and Gaza, the director of research for Israeli military intelligence, Brig. General Itai Brun, told the country’s annual national security conference at Herzliya that Hamas possessed a couple thousand missiles with a range of 24.8 miles and a couple hundred missiles with a range that was twice that.
The general made no mention of the longer-range weapons that can now threaten virtually all of Israel.
Current and former Israeli officials interviewed by The Daily Beast stress that the Israel Defense Force was not surprised that Hamas possessed missiles—known as the M-302--with much longer ranges than the ones publicly disclosed last month by Brun. Indeed, Israel intercepted a shipment the M-302s produced in Syria and shipped through Iran, Iraq, and Sudan it said was headed to Gaza in March.
Sneh said, “I am not sure that General Brun said everything we knew. What we did know was that they were experimenting and launching missiles as tests that they were developing themselves into the sea.”
For now, Israel can rely on the success of its missile defense system to make up for the failure of its intelligence agencies to stop Hamas from improving their rockets. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate subcommittee that doles out defense spending approved a bill to give Israel $621.6 million for those missile defense systems.