Israel will deploy tanks equipped with a miniature missile-defense system along the Gaza Strip border in the coming weeks now that Palestinian militants are using a sophisticated, tank-piercing missile, defence officials said on Wednesday.
Violence has been escalating along the Gaza border in recent weeks, and Israel’s military chief disclosed on Tuesday that militants from the Palestinian coastal strip had for the first time fired a Kornet missile earlier this month and that it penetrated an Israeli tank.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers have not confirmed or denied possessing the missiles.
Israeli officials say the Iranian-backed Gaza militants who once relied on crude, locally made projectiles, have steadily acquired more powerful and accurate missiles produced overseas.
The Israeli defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss such matters publicly, alleged the laser-guided Kornet had come from Iran.
They provided no proof and it was not clear how the missiles were delivered. Hamas, which has close ties with Iran, controls a network of smuggling tunnels along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.
“We are talking about a massive missile, one of the most dangerous in the battlefield,” Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi told a parliament committee on Tuesday. He added the missile did not explode inside the tank, and no one was hurt.
But after this attack, the military decided to move to the Gaza border dozens of tanks equipped with the Israel-developed “Trophy” system, which detects incoming projectiles and shoots them down before they reach armoured vehicles.
Production of the Trophy was stepped up after Kornet missiles fired by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas destroyed or damaged several dozens Israeli tanks during a 2006 war.
The Trophy has not yet been tried on the battlefield, though the Defence Ministry says it has been tested successfully against a variety of weapons, including Kornets.
Israel launched a massive military offensive in Gaza two years ago in response to years of rocket fire. The operation killed some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis died in the fighting.
Since then, Hamas has largely avoided carrying out attacks on Israel. But smaller, even more radical militant groups, continue to fire rockets and mortars at Israel. The Israelis hold Hamas, which overran Gaza in 2007, responsible for all violence out of the area.
The Kornet - made in Russia and sold widely overseas - is the most advanced weapon believed to be in the hands of Gaza militants.
In use since the mid-1990s, it is capable of penetrating armour up to four feet (1,200 mm) thick and has a range of about almost four miles (5.5 kilometers). It carries a warhead of 22 pounds (10 kilograms).
Because it was designed to puncture multiple layers of armour, “this missile knows how to penetrate modern tanks. It is a very accurate missile,” said Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general.
“That means our tanks that enter Gaza or move along the Gaza border are in much greater danger,” Amidror added. “The military will have to move more quickly than it expected to bring in tanks with anti-tank cover that intercepts incoming missiles. That’s the Trophy.”
If, in the past, tanks relied on thick layers of armour or technology that weakened the impact of an incoming rocket, the Trophy is designed to change the battlefield equation by preventing missiles from ever reaching a tank.
Israeli media have said the cost is about $200,000 per tank. The Defence Ministry company that produces the system would say only that the price is a “small fraction” of a tank’s overall cost.
The U.S. and Russia are developing similar systems, but the Israeli one is believed to be the first to be deployed on the battlefield.