The Hamas-fired missile that slammed into Hadera – an Israeli seaside town midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa – likely travelled a long, circuitous and murky route from Syria via Iran, Sudan and Egypt before its last flight from Gaza on Tuesday.
The missile, believed to be a Syrian-made M-302 Khaibar, eluded Israel's much-vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile shield and heralds a new and deadlier phase in the vicious war of indiscriminate attacks on population centres.
With a range of at least 100 kilometres, the Khaibars give Hamas a fearful new weapon capable of reaching most of Israel's population, including well beyond Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the nation's main airport.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Iran of being the primary arms supplier to Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza strip.
"Iran is … sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations – via an elaborate network of secret operations around that world that aim to funnel rockets, missiles and other deadly weapons to be used to harm innocent civilians," Mr. Netanyahu said, adding: "Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens."
The Khaibar's warhead, packing 170 kilograms of high explosive, originally tipped a Chinese-designed missile fired from a multiple launcher atop a military vehicle. But Hamas likely fired it from an improvised launcher built in and hidden by a shed or other structure. The five-metre-long, needle-nosed missile with four fixed fins at the back is unguided once fired.
Several other Khaibars, named for the fort near Medina where Muslims attacked and defeated a Jewish enclave in 629, were fired Tuesday, according to Israeli reports. Like the one that hit Hadera, none of the notoriously inaccurate missiles caused any deaths or injuries. But the attacks using Khaibars marked the first time such long-range missiles were fired from Gaza.
Since the 2012 Israeli attack on Gaza that crippled Hamas, "they have been re-equipped significantly by Iran and also by weapons from Syria," Colonel Richard Kemp an analyst with London's Royal United Services Institute told AFP.
Along with thousands of short-range, Gaza-built missiles, Hamas has in its arsenal Iranian Fajr-5 missiles. which have a 75-kilometre reach. But the Syrian-made Khaibars represent the most deadly weapon in the hands of Hamas.
In March, Israeli naval Special Forces in three fast attack craft, intercepted and seized the Klos-C, a Panamanian freighter in the Red Sea. Buried beneath sacks of cement bearing labels that read "Made in Iran" were wooden crates containing several dozen Khaibar missiles.
That intercepted shipment wasn't the first Israeli military strike aimed at disrupting the clandestine and circuitous arms route from Iran to Hamas militants in Gaza.
In 2009, Israeli warplanes bombed a convoy of trucks in northern Sudan, believed headed to the Gaza-Egypt border and loaded with arms.
After the Klos-C, bound for Port Sudan, was commandeered and forced to dock in the Israeli port of Eilat, the Israeli defence forces said 40 Syrian-made Khaibar missiles, more than 180 mortar shells and 400,000 rounds of ammunition for assault rifles were found on board.
If the initial examination of missile debris from Hadera confirms Hamas now has Khaibar in its arsenal, the finger of suspicion will again point to Tehran.
Syrian-made Khaibars, fired by Hezbollah, from southern Lebanon, were first used against Israel in 2006. But the use of the missile – larger and longer-ranged than anything previously known to be held by Hamas – indicates Iran has managed to get some Khaibar shipments past Israeli intelligence and interception efforts.
Israeli officials have suggested the first leg of the route last March was an airlift from Syria in Iranian military cargo jets to Tehran. The missiles were loaded on the Klos-C in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The ship then stopped in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, before sailing through the Straits of Hormuz, out of the Persian Gulf, skirting the Arabian Peninsula before heading into the Red Sea and its intended destination of Port Sudan.
The Iran-to-Gaza arms route then runs overland, crosses the Sinai; weapons and munitions are secreted to Hamas through the vast network of smuggling tunnels beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border.