Just 15 months after Israel sought to drastically reduce the rocket threat from Gaza in Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas has substantially bolstered its capacity to fire on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the rest of central Israel.

The Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers have invested heavily in producing their own M-75 rockets, with a range of 75 kilometers and more, and now have an arsenal of dozens of the rockets, The Times of Israel has learned. They will have dozens more by the end of this year.

This means that the next round of conflict with Gaza will be focused on central Israel, with the Israeli military braced to defend the heart of the country against unprecedented salvos of M-75s directed at Tel Aviv, the rest of central Israel, and Jerusalem.

It is not clear how effectively Israel’s missile defense systems will be able to deal with the expected launch of numerous M-75s in large, simultaneous barrages. During the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, only about 10 of the M-75 rockets were launched at central Israel and Jerusalem, so the current threat is seen as many times more serious.

An apartment building in Rishon Lezion that was hit by a Fajr rocket from Gaza on Tuesday evening (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

An apartment building in Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv, that was hit by a rocket from Gaza, November 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hamas realized after Pillar of Defense that firing on central Israel immensely bolstered its prestige, and the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, was recognized and hailed as only the second Arab leader, after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, to have hit central Israel.

Since that conflict, therefore, Hamas has focused on improving its capacity to build such rockets, establishing a domestic production capacity rather than relying on smuggling rockets and components into the strip. Domestic production of the M-75 has become Hamas’s flagship project.

An Iron Dome battery placed in the Tel Aviv area on November 17, during Operation Pillar of Defense (photo credit: Alon Besson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

An Iron Dome battery placed in the Tel Aviv area on November 17, 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense (photo credit: Alon Besson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

At the same time, Hamas has also committed considerable resources to the construction of a substantial network of tunnels — dozens of miles of underground networks in key areas of the Strip — which will immensely complicate future military confrontations for Israel, The Times of Israel has learned.

Hamas’s investment in tunnels dug toward and under the border with Israel, in order to carry out terror attacks, is longstanding. It was through such a tunnel that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and two of his colleagues were killed, in a 2006 infiltration that ultimately led to the release of some 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s freedom five years later. Hamas remains committed to attempting further kidnapping operations, both to bolster its prestige and to secure additional prisoner releases. The kidnap threat is considered acute both from Gaza and in the West Bank.

Beyond this, however, Hamas in Gaza has moved far ahead with an underground military network inside the Strip — a subterranean network with several significant benefits for the Islamic extremist group: Hamas will use the tunnels to plant mines targeting Israeli land forces, the Israeli military believes. It will use the network of tunnels to move its gunmen undetected from place to place during warfare. The Israeli military further anticipates that Hamas will fire rockets from underground launchers, making them far harder to detect and target. Moreover, the Hamas command and communication facilities will be located underground, enabling it to seek to maintain effective control out of reach of Israeli air power. Finally, the Hamas leadership, which the Israeli army said in the past had taken refuge in underground bunkers beneath hospitals and other civilian facilities, will also utilize these more-sophisticated underground facilities.

Palestinian rescue workers search for the bodies of three Hamas operatives inside a tunnel hit by an Israeli air strike, near the border between Israel and Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 2, 2013. The Israeli military said the tunnel was to be used as a springboard for terror attacks inside Israel. (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

Palestinian rescue workers search for the bodies of three Hamas operatives inside a tunnel hit by an Israeli air strike, near the border between Israel and Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 2, 2013. The Israeli military said the tunnel was to be used as a springboard for terror attacks inside Israel. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

In terms of its regional status, Hamas is perceived by Israel to be relatively weak, notably because of the ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt. The ongoing crackdown by Egypt on the cross-border smuggling tunnels has devastated Gaza’s economy. Water supplies are dwindling, and water quality is extremely poor. Electricity is available in some areas for only a few minutes a day. Unemployment is high. And public dissatisfaction with the Hamas government is widespread, in the Israeli assessment.

For now, Hamas is not perceived to be ready for a further round of conflict with Israel, in part because of a concern about how the consequent devastation would be received by Gazans. At the same time, however, Hamas’s practical capacity to prevent rocket fire on Israel by rival groups is on the wane. Iran is constantly prodding the rival Islamic Jihad group to attack Israel, and Islamic Jihad is indeed behind much of the recent intermittent rocket fire on Ashkelon and southern Israel. Hamas has made efforts to thwart such attacks, but is ridiculed by Islamic Jihad for trying to keep the peace with Israel, and in some cases is hamstrung by such basic factors as a lack of fuel for its vehicles as they patrol to try to thwart the rocket-launch squads.

For now, Hamas’s governance in Gaza is secure, Israel believes. Hamas fears a Tahrir Square-style popular uprising, but is proving highly effective in cracking down on occasional small public signs of dissent and is not currently facing wide scale efforts at public protest.

Ultimately, however, Israel’s military assessment is that another round of conflict is simply a matter of time. Some in the security hierarchy believe that a substantial Israeli ground offensive, possibly even a long-term operation, may be unavoidable, but there is no consensus on this.

What is clear, The Times of Israel has learned, is that when the next round of conflict does come, the IDF and the home front will be facing a Hamas with immensely greater capabilities to fire on central Israel, thanks to its domestic rocket production, and a much-enhanced capacity to defend itself against Israeli air and ground capabilities by virtue of its new underground networks.