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Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Monday, 21 January 2008

Gaza's rocket threat to Israel

Sderot police station
The remnants of hundreds of rockets are held at Sderot police station

Rockets known generically as Qassams are homemade weapons fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militants at Israeli population centres near the Gaza Strip.

Development of Qassam technology (named after the early 20th-Century Islamist preacher Izzedine al-Qassam) has been spearheaded by Hamas since the outbreak of the current intifada in 2000 to use against Israeli civilians and retaliate for deadly incursions and assassinations of its militants.

Other groups have similar weapons with names like the Quds (Islamic Jihad) and the Nasser (Popular Resistance Committees).

Qassams are very primitive missiles and their main effect on Israelis in the area is psychological torment - a kind of Chinese water torture
Yoram Schweitzer
Jaffee Centre

The rockets are crude, unguided two-metre-long steel weapons filled with explosives, that seldom do much damage but occasionally inflict casualties.

They are quick to assemble, quick to launch and they land moments after being fired. Before Israel's forces can respond, the militants usually flee the scene.

Qassam and other rockets have killed 13 people inside Israel, including three children.

In some months, more than 100 launches have been recorded by the Israelis.

Expanding range

The small Negev town of Sderot has become synonymous in Israel with the Qassam threat, because it has the only large Israeli population centre within the original Qassam's range.

QASSAM ROCKET
Qassam rocket near Ashkelon
Named after Hamas organisation's armed wing
Cause of 12 deaths, including three infants, in Israel
Attack frequency has climbed sharply since April 2006
783 rockets fired at Israel in 2007, killing two people

Source: Israeli defence forces

Some of Sderot's outlying houses are less than a kilometre from the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun.

The rocket is usually one of two models, the Qassam 1 with a maximum range of 3km (1.8 miles) and the Qassam 2 with a range of up to 9km. A third model, the Qassam 3, is believed to have a range of 10km.

The newer Qassams occasionally reach the large Israeli industrial city of Ashkelon, although they have failed to have the same impact as on Sderot.

The Israeli authorities have brought in some reinforced shelters, and installed an early warning system which broadcasts a "colour red" warning over loudspeakers, but it only gives a few seconds for residents to find protection.

Of greater strategic concern to Israel is the possibility of Katyusha-style rockets attacks. They can hit targets at a range of 22km, according to the army.

However, even this is small compared to the kind of Katyushas used by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon which have a reported range of 100km.

'Low-cost pressure'

"Qassams are very primitive missiles and their main effect on Israelis in the area is psychological torment - a kind of Chinese water torture," says Yoram Schweitzer of Tel Aviv's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.

It is, he says, a major weapon for the militants, "easily launched at low cost but creating a lot of pressure".

While Israeli casualties have been comparatively light, it would only take one major taking of life in a school or other civilian facility to spark a major military operation against the rocket squads, Mr Schweitzer adds.

Israel has tried to scotch the Qassam threat by raids on metalworks in Gaza and clearing areas of orchards and farmland that the militants use to fire from.

It has also systematically demolished the homes of people it suspects of being involved in the manufacture of the rockets.

In September 2007, it declared Gaza "hostile territory" which its officials said would allow the army to limit fuel and electricity supplied to the territory, though this was condemned by critics as a illegal collective punishment on the besieged 1.5m population of Gaza.

However, Israel's tactics have not stopped the almost daily attacks on Sderot and other targets near Gaza.

Map showing range of rockets fired from Gaza



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