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ISRAEL: Appearance of new antitank weapon in Gaza raises concerns as border heats up

December 22, 2010 | 11:58 am

Kornet The Gaza-Israel border has been heating up in recent weeks, with an increasing number of incidents on the fence, and rocket and mortar fire from the strip into Israel sharply on the rise.

Alongside calculated retaliation including airstrikes on tunnels, militants and -- for the first time since the military operation known as Cast Lead nearly two years ago -- hitting Hamas targets, Israel is keeping a close eye on things and assessing the rationale for the recent escalation.

Most rocket fire is carried out not by Hamas but by smaller, more radical organizations in Gaza, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said this week, estimating that the smaller, more radical organizations opposing Hamas are trying to drag it into renewed conflict with Israel.

Hamas is testing Israel's responses and trying to create a margin for maneuver without instigating a major confrontation, writes the aptly named MESS Report (Middle East Security Survey). Commentators suggest Hamas has to allow others to blow off steam over the deadlocked Palestinian reconciliation talks as well as a prisoner exchange deal.

"The situation in the south is very fragile and explosive," Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the knesset Foreign Affairs and Security committee this week, noting that although military circles control the strip rather than politicians like Hamas Prime Minister Ismaeel Haniyeh, Israel holds Hamas responsible.

The Palestinian Authority is also watching. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed concern that this could lead to a large-scale Israeli attack, which would only make matters worse.

Neither side wants much more but an increase in rocket attacks on civilians could ultimately challenge Israel. The general calm was the result of deterrence, says minister Dan Meridor, noting that deterrence requires maintenance.

A new factor could change the balance of deterrence, as well as the face of the next confrontation in Gaza. Ashkenazi told the parliamentary committee that two weeks ago that an Israeli Defense Forces tank had been hit by an advanced Kornet antitank missile, which penetrated the armor but didn't explode.  Advanced antitank weaponry could well force a rethinking of military strategy in a future engagement.

The Russian-made Kornets, along with other antitank weapons, had exposed an Israeli weakness -- both conceptual and practical -- during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Used frequently by Hezbollah, the guided missiles with a range of about 3 miles proved effective in protecting militia field combatants while halting armored advances, damaging tanks and occasionally turning them into deathtraps.

Israel had complained to Russia, which denied Hezbollah had up-to-date Russian weaponry.

Israel had underestimated Hezbollah's possession of these weapons, also perhaps their familiarity with the different types of protection on various armored vehicles. Israel adjusted its learning curve accordingly with new protection.  

The amored APS (Active Protection System) known as "Trophy," a joint Israeli-American development, uses radars and sensors to identify threats like antitank missiles, then releases special explosives to neutralize them. The system -- fitted on the Merkava 4, Israel's most advanced tank -- was recently tested with success and will be integrated into growing numbers of tanks in coming months. The tank that was hit in Gaza, according to the media, was one version older.

The Iranians and Syrians are involved in armament efforts on Israel's southern and northern fronts, Meridor said, and Israel is engaged in both overt and covert efforts to block these. In a letter to the United Nations complaining of the attacks, Israel also urged the Security Council to give "appropriate attention" to the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: The 9M133 Kornet antitank missile and launcher. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Video: The "Trophy" active protection system by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Via Youtube

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