Hamas squeezed between Iron Dome and steel wall

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s Hamas rulers have suffered back-to-back setbacks with Israel’s successful test of a rocket shield and Egypt’s push to block smuggling tunnels.

The Iron Dome rocket defense system, reportedly to be deployed near Gaza in May, would deprive Hamas of its main leverage against Israel — the threat of rocket salvos. Egypt’s underground anti-tunnel barrier of steel beams, now under construction, could eventually cut Hamas’ supply of cash and weapons.

The looming double squeeze is poised to limit Hamas’ options and change the rules of engagement on Gaza’s volatile, blockaded borders.

However, the Islamic militants remain firmly entrenched in the territory they seized from their Western-backed Fatah rivals in 2007.

Hamas has already struck back against the steel wall by trying to rally public opinion against Egypt and experts warn Hamas could attempt to renew suicide attacks in Israel if rockets are intercepted.

Hamas “can adjust to any new circumstances,” said Ahmed Yousef, an official in the group, without giving specifics. He said more pressure on the movement would only make it more popular.

In recent years, Hamas, Israel and Egypt have been locked in a violent impasse.

Since 2006, following the capture of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants, Israel and Egypt have kept Gaza largely sealed, mainly to contain Hamas. The Islamic militants, in turn, tried to force open the borders by firing crude rockets, often triggering harsh Israeli retaliation.

After nightfall Thursday, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded outside the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, the military said, causing no damage or casualties.

After Israel unleashed a punishing offensive against Gaza a year ago to stop the daily barrages, rocket and mortar fire ebbed but did not stop. Meanwhile, basic goods, cash and weapons kept coming in through tunnels from Egypt, in addition to limited humanitarian supplies Israel lets through one of its crossings into Gaza.

Israel’s Iron Dome and Egypt’s steel wall could change the equation, analysts said.

This “weakens the position of Hamas in the strip and confronts them with a challenge, on … the Egyptian and the Israeli front,” said Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. “They will now have to devise a strategy to face up to these new developments.”

Israel announced Wednesday that it successfully tested the Iron Dome system, which intercepts short-range missiles of the type fired from Gaza and Lebanon.

Developed at a cost of more than $200 million, it shoots down incoming rockets within seconds of their launch, the Defense Ministry said. The system is so sophisticated that it can almost instantly predict where a rocket will land, changing its calculations to account for wind, sun and other conditions in fractions of a second.

Israeli security officials acknowledge the system is expensive and will probably not be able to stop every rocket. Nonetheless, they say it is an important development in protecting Israelis and will strike an important psychological blow to Hamas.

The first battery is to be deployed in May to shield the town of Sderot near Gaza, the most frequent target of rocket attacks in recent years, according to Israel Channel 10 TV.

Uzi Rubin, a former top Defense Ministry official who was in charge of the long range anti-missile Arrow project, said changes will be profound. “Until now, we were totally exposed to anyone in Gaza who had a rocket to shoot at Israel,” he said. “The ability (of Hamas) to cause losses and casualties in Israel will be greatly diminished.”

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing — Izzedine al Qassam — declined comment on Iron Dome.

A Hamas security officer in Gaza City, who is not linked to the military wing, shrugged off Israel’s shield, saying it would be very expensive to shoot down every rocket. He refused to be quoted by name, in keeping with Hamas practice.

Ted Postol, an expert on missile defense at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was not familiar with all the details of Iron Dome, but believed it could help protect small communities from direct hits.

However, he said it was not clear if the system could stop a massive rocket barrage, and the high cost could also be a problem.

A homemade projectile costs less than $200, he said, while intercepting one would cost around $100,000.

Rubin, the former defense ministry official, said the shield is worthwhile anyway, citing the high human and economic cost to communities that live under rocket threat.

Israeli experts say the cost will drop once the system is in mass production.

For now, cross-border friction typical of the recent years still plays itself out.

On Thursday, Gaza militants fired at least 10 mortar rounds at Israel, saying it was retaliation for an Israeli air strike that killed a Gaza gunman and wounded three earlier this week.

Three of the mortars hit the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main conduit for humanitarian goods into Gaza, but caused no damage. In response, Israel closed the crossing, stopping a shipment of food and medicine, as its air force dropped leaflets over Gaza warning residents to stay away from the smuggling tunnels and the border area.

On Wednesday, Hamas loyalists clashed with Egyptian troops over Egypt’s border wall. An Egyptian border guard was killed and seven Gazans were wounded in a brief exchange of fire.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued a stern warning, saying it would not stand for another violent protest on the border.

Some, meanwhile, have questioned the effectiveness of the steel wall, saying tunnel smugglers could simply dig deeper.

Khaled Hroub, a Hamas expert and lecturer at Cambridge University, said he believes the recent developments will restrict Hamas’ military options, but not its control over Gaza.

Demonstrating its position of power, Hamas last week opened its first four-year police academy to mark the anniversary of the Dec. 27, 2008 start of Israel’s military offensive against Gaza. On the first day of the war, massive Israeli bombing raids had killed more than 250 Hamas police in their posts.

Hundreds of young Gazans competed for 155 spots in the academy’s freshmen class, said Raed Barghout, a spokesman. On Thursday, the young cadets jogged along Gaza’s coastal road in black track suits in the morning drill, chanting slogans about liberating the homeland.

“We wanted to tell the world that you can’t suppress the government of Gaza,” Barghout said.