By Patrick Goodenough
In a new sign of the growing dangers facing Israel, security officials have confirmed that terrorists in the Gaza Strip for the first time have fired an anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli aircraft.
Officials told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that the weapon, apparently a Strela shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, targeted an Israeli military helicopter over the Hamas-ruled territory last week but missed.
INCREASING THREAT POSED BY ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES
Israel has long suspected Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza of having such weapons, and amid the chaos accompanying the downfall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya many went missing, and more are believed to have been smuggled into the Strip, via tunnels from the Sinai peninsula.
Soviet-designed Strela-2 missiles (known by NATO as SA-7 Grail) have been used in various insurgencies around the world, including the mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the anti-coalition insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
The threat posed by such missiles—also known as “man-portable air defense systems” (MANPADS)—has been cited for years by Israeli security officials in expressing concerns about the risks of Palestinian militants using them against passenger aircraft approaching and leaving Israel’s main international airport. Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv is located less than five miles from the nearest territory the Palestinians want included in a future state.
In September last year White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan told reporters that administration was concerned that Libyan regime weapons including MANPADS could get into the hands of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
It was reported at the time that thousands of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles were unaccounted for in Libya, having gone missing from a looted regime arms depot.
MANPADS’ ease of operation, portability and relatively low cost make them a weapon of choice for terrorists wanting to target civilian or military aircraft.
According to U.S. government data, more than 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by such weapons over the past four decades, resulting in some 800 deaths. Rebels used the weapons to shoot down a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, an act that helped to trigger the genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives.
In one known al-Qaeda use, terrorists tried unsuccessfully to down an Israeli airliner shortly after it took off from an airport in Kenya in 2002.
The reported use of MANPADS by Gaza-based terrorists came during the same week that Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Iranian proxy in Lebanon, deployed a drone aircraft over Israel. The unmanned plane was shot down over an uninhabited area in southern Israel, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a speech said it had been designed in Iran and assembled by his group in Lebanon.