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THE MIDEAST

Hamas' Powerful New Weapon Alters Strategic Calculations Along the Gaza Strip

April 7: A wounded Israeli is treated by medics at the site where an Israeli school bus was hit by a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip near the border between southern Israel and Gaza Wednesday. A Palestinian mortar shell from the Gaza Strip struck a school bus in southern Israel Thursday, wounding two people, including one child critically, Israeli officials said.AP2011

Hamas’ recent use of a Russian-made, laser-guided anti-tank missile against a school bus marks a clear change in the strategic balance along the fragile Gaza-Israel border: By either fate, or perhaps design, the Hamas attack comes just as Israel deployed its “Iron Dome” missile defense system that has rendered Hamas’ Grad rockets almost useless against civilian targets.

Israel called the use of the of the advanced weaponry a “red line,” now putting in danger the tens of thousands of Israelis who drive on roads with a line of sight view from the Gaza Strip. Until now, drivers only had to worry about highly inaccurate mortar fire that had to be launched from relatively open areas.

“We are talking about sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, sophisticated anti-tank weaponry and long-range rockets that can hit even north to Tel-Aviv. Now Hamas was restrained so far not to use many of them in order not to force Israel with its back to the wall to initiate another huge military ground operation against Hamas,” said Ronen Bergman, an Israeli security expert who has written extensively on the Jewish state, its security services and its relationship to the Islamic world.

Now that Hamas has shown a willingness to use a next-generation weapon against a civilian target, experts say Israel will have to re-evaluate how it looks at the hot truce that exists on the border.

Currently, there is a tit-for-tat relationship between Hamas mortar and rocket attacks answered by Israeli air strikes taking out various militant targets, depots and the occasional target assassination of a cell leader.

Hamas says the missile attack was making good on a promise to retaliate against Israel for killing three of its leaders in a targeted assassination earlier this month. While the attack only wounded two people -- the bus had just dropped its students off -- militants fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into southern Israeli. The Israeli Air Force raised the normal reciprocity multiplier a couple of times in what was called a clear message to Hamas that attacks with this new type of weapon would carry an overwhelming price tag.

“Because the conditions of the cease-fire are very flexible, this is not a cease-fire. This is a low level, a very low-level-intensity conflict. The interpretation of the conditions of this very low-intensity conflict are different, and they can lead to another deterioration,” Bergman said. 

In the weekend exchange, Israel killed at least 20 Palestinians, including civilians and at least a few Hamas leaders. Even still, it took a few days for Hamas leaders to gain control of the various militant groups within Gaza, many of whom are seemingly unconcerned with the Israeli counterattacks or their collateral damage and are singularly focused on harassing Israel and threatening its southern residents. 

Many of the more hawkish members of Israel’s political and defense establishment argued for Israel to continue the attacks on Gaza. It's generally accepted that it’s a question of when, not if, the skirmish will escalate and the Israeli Army will once again invade Gaza to try and root out the Hamas weaponry.

For years, Israel has warned that Iran and Syria are smuggling not only mortars, rocket propelled grenades and AK-47s to Hamas but also more sophisticated weapons capable of giving Hamas a significantly better chance against the Israeli military. Israel enters the urban war zone against a dug-in, well trained and now even better-supplied group of militants.

“Like Iran and Syria supplied Hezbollah with sophisticated anti tank rockets – Matisse, Cornet and other RPG's that caused great damage to Israeli tanks and Israeli infantry in 2006 -- they did the same in Gaza with Hamas. Now Israel is well prepared. This is why we saw they're looking for another target, a non military target. This is why they hit the bus with the Kornate,” said Bergman.

Hamas poked the sleeping lion just as the lion finished thickening its fur. In the hour and days after the bus attack as Israel fighter jets and helicopters pounded targets in Gaza, Hamas and some of the more radical organizations lets loose their usual barrage of unguided rockets and mortar shells at towns in southern Israel. The mortars landed as they often do in unpopulated areas. The rockets, including some of the larger Grad rockets, met a new fate as they were intercepted mid-flight by Israel’s Iron Dome. 

Built largely in response to the 2006 war with Hezbeollah in Lebanon when thousands of rockets rained down on civilian populations, the Iron Dome is capable of shooting down missiles as they head for Israel’s towns. Last weekend was the systems first “battlefield test,” and it performed better than many expected or even hoped, shooting down at least eight rockets and only missing one.

At $40,000 a shot, a lot was riding on this deployment, shooting down rockets that often don’t cause more than $400 in damage. 

However, proponents of the system argue that it is able to calculate an enemy rocket's probable target after launch and then decide if its worth sending an interceptor to protect a civilian population or allow it to destroy a few crops or trees as they often do. 

“Like Israel, Hamas is testing the system. I think Hamas is trying to find ways how to bypass the system or how much missile at one time at one launching can the system take,” Bergman said.

Again the latest weaponry appears to have altered the strategic balance, both in the sense that civilian populations no longer feel helpless and thus demand large-scale Israeli counterattacks, and with the high publicized success of the system, it's harder for Israel to justify its airstrikes in the court of public opinion. which is often less than favorable to the Jewish state.

The new balance of power must then be looked at through the lens of the broader Middle East, which itself seems to be changing like a kaleidoscope. Hamas is largely a proxy of Syria and Iran, Bergman said. There may not be the kind of direct control that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard exercises over Hezbollah to Israel’s north in Lebanon, but there is real fear that either Syria or Iran could turn Hamas loose to launch attacks on Israel as a distraction from their own internal security problems.

Over the weekend both sides publicaly said they wanted a cease-fire, and Hamas’ foreign minister made the all-but-unprecedented move of going on Israeli radio and asking in Hebrew for the airstikes to stop. 

While it seems that would bring a quick calm to any conflict, it took at least 48 hours for both sides to stop, as they attempted to find their new equilibrium. The balance of power shifted in just a few days. 

While Monday and Tuesday brought an eerie calm to the skies above the Gaza border, it appears that with Hamas willing to use a new class of weapons and Israel’s technology making their traditional ones largely irrelevant, it will be even more difficult to find that calm once the next round of bullets, mortars or missles fly.

“Everybody should bear in mind that if this missile would have been fired five minutes before (when the bus was filled with children), we would have been witnessing a full-scale war between Israel and the Gaza strip today,” Bergman said.

Additional reporting by Dana Karni

Leland Vittert currently serves as a FOX News Channel (FNC) foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem. He joined the network in 2010.