Senior Israel Defense Forces officers believe that Hamas has managed to overcome the technological barrier that has so far prevented it from stockpiling a large number of Qassam rockets.

According to the officers, the group succeeded in expediting its production of rockets in an effort to create a new level of deterrence vis-a-vis Israel in the Gaza Strip.

IDF forces pulled out of the town of Beit Hanun Tuesday, but in fighting in other parts of the northern Gaza Strip, seven Palestinians were killed. Within several hours of the end of “Operation Autumn Clouds” there, four Qassams struck Ashkelon.

To date Hamas has been unsuccessful at solving the problem of storing Qassam rockets for long periods of time without their becoming ineffective. The fact that the rockets became unusable so quickly necessitated a nearly immediate and constant launch of the weapons, and prevented the group from accumulating a “critical mass” of the rockets.

Senior officers say that now, with the smuggling into Gaza of large quantities of military-grade explosives, Hamas seems to have managed to breach the technological barrier it was facing. It also appears that the militant organization has stepped up production of the missiles.

The accumulation of thousands of rockets over time will allow the organization, at a time of its choosing, to initiate a major and enduring bombardment of Sderot and other towns in the western Negev, just like Hezbollah did by targeting the Galilee during the war in Lebanon this summer.

At Southern Command, the results of the operation in Beit Hanun are considered to be positive. During the past week, some 60 Palestinians were killed in IDF operations; according to an examination by Haaretz, they included 18 civilians.

A senior officer told Haaretz Tuesday night that “the operations in the Gaza Strip will have to take on a different character in the future, similar to what we did in Beit Hanun.

It is no longer possible to chase after a single Qassam – and we had no illusions that the operation would bring to an end the rocket attacks forever. The point is that we need to bring them under constant pressure and establish deterrence, so that they will be less inclined to launch [rockets].

“The fact that Hamas is now looking desperately for a solution to bring an end to the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit proves that the pressure we place on them is working,” he added.

The same officer said that he believed the IDF will continue its offensive operations in the Gaza Strip, using varying levels of force.

“However,” he said, “in the future we will be involved in more dramatic missions. One way or another we will have to deal with the strengthening of Hamas.”

The Qassam rockets that hit Ashkelon Tuesday were of an improved model, capable of reaching targets 21 kilometers away. Two landed in the city and two in the southern industrial zone. No casualties were reported.

From HAARETZ, November 8 2006