To begin to make sense of the escalating conflict in Gaza, we need to go back to the night of Oct. 23 in Khartoum. Around 11 p.m. that night, the Yarmouk weapons facility in the Sudanese capital was attacked, presumably by the Israeli air force. There were indications that Iran had been using this facility to stockpile and possibly assemble weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, guided anti-tank missiles and long-range Fajr-5 rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from Gaza.
One of the major drivers behind Israel's latest air and assassination campaign is its belief that Hamas has a large cache of long-range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets in its possession. Israel's primary intent in this military campaign is to deny Hamas the ability to use these rockets or keep them as a constant threat to Israel's population centers. This likely explains why in early October, when short-range rocket attacks from Gaza were still at a low level, Israeli officials began conditioning the public to the idea of an "inevitable" Israeli intervention in Gaza. Israel knew Hamas had these weapons in its possession and that it could require a war to eliminate the Fajr rocket threat. It began with the strike on the facility in Sudan, extended to the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari (the architect of the Fajr rocket program) and now has the potential to develop into an Israeli ground incursion in Gaza.
Oct. 23 was not the first time Israel allegedly attacked weapons caches in Sudanese territory that were destined for Gaza. In January 2009, Israel allegedly carried out an airstrike against a weapons convoy northwest of Port Sudan heading to Gaza. The convoy included Fajr-3 rockets and was unusually large, with more than 20 trucks traveling north toward Gaza. The rushed shipment was allegedly arranged by Iran to reinforce Hamas during Operation Cast Lead. Iran was also exposed trying to smuggle weapons to Gaza through the Red Sea.
Though efforts were likely made to conceal the weapons cache at Yarmouk, it obviously did not escape Israeli detection. Hamas therefore took a major risk in smuggling the weapons to Gaza in the first place, perhaps thinking they could get away with it since they have been able to with less sophisticated weapons systems. Before Hamas responded to the Nov. 14 Jabari assassination, there were two major spates of rocket and mortar attacks over the past month. The first was Oct. 8-10 and the second was Oct. 22-24. When the decision was made to carry out these attacks, Hamas may not have known that Israel had detected the long-range Fajrs. Launching Grad and Qassam mortars may have been Hamas' attempt at misleading Israel into thinking that Hamas did not even have the Fajr rockets, because otherwise it would have used them. Hamas may have also erroneously assumed that launching mortars and short-range rockets, as it periodically does when the situation gets tense with Israel, would not lead to a major Israeli response.