The launching of a former Soviet Union BM-21 ‘Grad’ missile at the southern Israeli town of Netivot, may have changed the stakes dramatically in Israel’s on-going conflict with the Palestinians. The Grad, formerly a part of the Soviet Union’s field missile arsenal, has a diameter of 122 m/m and can carry a 25 kg payload a distance of up to 25 km (15 miles.) 25 km is well within striking distance of a number of Israeli cities and towns, including Ashkelon (pop. 117,000) and Qiryat Gat, home of Intel’s large computer chip processing plant. The “test firing” of the Grad at Netivot, apparently by members of Fatah’s militaristic Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, was announced by senior Brigade member Abu Fadi, is a response to Israeli intention to establish a “security strip along Gaza’s border with Israel.

It appears that a number of these rockets have been smuggled over the border from Egypt; and Israel television showed a short clip of some of these missiles being literally carried out of a parked van.

Netivot, a southern Negev town of some 28,000 inhabitants, has been placed on a state of high alert following the “firing exercise”. The Grad missile has been in production since the early 1960’s, and is still being manufactured in Russia, China, and various former Soviet Block countries. Rumor has it that quantities have even been made in the USA for use by allied countries such as Uzbekistan.

Should any of these missiles find their way into the P.A. occupied West Bank, cities like Petach Tikvah, Kfar Saba and Raanana, Netanya, and even Tel Aviv may become targets.

With the scheduled international summit being planned to take place in Annapolis Maryland at the end of this month, and with Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization being one of the key entities invited to participate, it’s a big question as to what will be the outcome of this meeting as Al Aqsa M. B. is a branch of Fatah. The Grad can be fired in a salvo of 40 from a truck mounted launcher in as little as six seconds. These missiles, packed with shrapnel such as steel balls and other items were launched in large quantities by Hezbollah forces against Israeli targets in the Lebanon II War in July and August of 2006.

Abu Fadi warned that the missiles “will only be used if the barbaric enemy launches a larger scale operation into Gaza or attempts to assassinate senior Gaza leaders”. Since a ground operation is presently in the planning stage, many residents of the aforementioned Israeli cities, not to mention the beleaguered town of Sderot, may be targeted by large numbers of Grad and Kassam missiles.

The big question that the Israeli government must be asking itself is just how many of these longer range missiles were “introduced” into Gaza following Israel’s withdraw in August, 2005. Egypt’s apparent laxness in enforcing any serious ban on such weapons being brought in to Gaza can only mean that possibly hundreds of these rockets may already have literally ‘walked over’ the border; as well as other weapons such as sophisticated anti-tank rockets which proved to be deadly in Lebanon.

No doubt these efforts of the part of Al Aqsa M.B. may be attempts to derail the upcoming summit, being planned so meticulously by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. With events such as the firing of these missiles, and with both Palestinian and Israeli officials already casting doubts concerning the effectiveness of such a meeting, it might be better if it is not attended at all. Israel is not about to agree to Palestinian demands, including dividing Jerusalem, under these circumstances.