An unlikely suspect arises in Wednesday’s rocket fire: Lightning
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Cabinet briefed on theory; army says Hamas still to blame

An unlikely suspect arises in Wednesday’s rocket fire: Lightning

An electrical discharge could theoretically have triggered the projectile that destroyed a Beersheba home, experts say

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Lightning is seen above the coastal city of Netanya on January 4, 2018, as the worst storm of the winter hits Israel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Illustrative: Lightning is seen above the coastal city of Netanya on January 4, 2018, as the worst storm of the winter hits Israel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

An implausible-sounding theory has been put forward to explain the two rockets fired Wednesday from the Gaza Strip, one of which scored a direct hit on a home: They weren’t launched by terrorists, but by a bolt of lightning.

“It’s not totally impossible,” said Yoav Yair, a professor of atmospheric and space sciences at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.

Tal Inbar, an expert in rocketry at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies think tank, agreed that from a technical standpoint a lightning strike could trigger a rocket’s launch mechanism.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s also an opportunity for both sides to come out of this like everything’s okay,” he said.

The rockets were fired from Gaza shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday. One exploded outside a home in the southern city of Beersheba, causing significant damage to the building, but no injuries as the mother Miri Tamano inside had rushed her three sons to a bomb shelter before the projectile hit.

Around the same time, the second rocket landed off the coast of the greater Tel Aviv area, known as Gush Dan.

According to the new theory, the projectiles were armed, ready and aimed at Beersheba and Gush Dan in case of an outbreak of violence with Israel, when lightning struck in the area and sent them on their way.

A map showing five lightning strikes hitting the Gaza area on October 17, 2018, around the time that two rockets were fired at Israel from the Strip. (Courtesy of Israel Total Lightning Network, produced by Dr. Barry Lynn)

Five bolts of lightning struck down in the Gaza area around between 3:10 and 3:20 a.m. on Wednesday morning, according to maps produced by Dr. Barry Lynn of the Weather-It-Is company and the Israel Total Lightning Network, which tracks lightning strikes.

Four of them touched down out at sea, but one struck within the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military refused to comment on the theory, saying only that it held Hamas responsible for “all aggression from Gaza against Israel.”

An army official added that who or what launched the rocket was less important than what would happen along the Gaza border on Friday — namely if the same types of riots and clashes that have raged there in recent weeks would continue or not.

The theory was reportedly presented as a possible, if unproven, explanation for the rocket fire to the security cabinet on Wednesday night, during a four-and-a-half hour meeting.

The rockets were a locally produced mid-range variety with a heavy 20-kilogram (44-pound) warhead. According to the Israel Defense Forces, only the Gaza-ruling Hamas and Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups have access to that type of projectile.

A man watches a house that was hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip, in the city of Beersheba, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

However, Hamas and the PIJ quickly denied responsibility for the rockets and denounced whoever had launched them, saying it was “irresponsible” and threatened to derail an Egyptian-led effort to reach a longer term armistice with Israel in exchange for economic incentives.

In response to the rockets, the IDF launched a series of airstrikes against some 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including a Hamas border-crossing attack tunnel.

In the following hours, the theory that the rockets had been set off by a bolt of lightning began spreading in Palestinian media outlets.

Veteran Israeli Arab affairs reporter Shimrit Meir presented the theory on her popular Twitter page, writing, “Friends, there’s a new version about the launch, and I’m not kidding now. News outlets close to Hamas are claiming it was lightning that struck the missiles and set them off, one to the north and one to Beersheba.”

The claim was bolstered by a cellphone video from Gaza that purported to show the launches moments after a bolt of lightning struck the area.

“I’m not an expert in how to launch a rocket, but I can tell you that there have been many cases of lightning striking missiles that have happened in the past,” said Yair, the atmospheric and space sciences professor, who has also worked on Israel’s space program.

He offered an example of the Apollo 12 moon mission, which was nearly called off after lightning struck the rocket shortly after takeoff, as well as a case in the United Kingdom in the 1800s in which lightning struck a cache of gunpowder and set off “an incredible explosion that destroyed an entire warehouse district.”

Inbar, who is an expert in how to launch a rocket, said this type of projectile is triggered by an electronic mechanism so a lightning strike could set it off, especially because terror groups in the Strip likely aren’t using sophisticated safety precautions.

“I don’t believe that Hamas or anyone else there is putting in place measures to protect against short circuits. They work fairly simply,” he said.

According to Yair, the intensity of the lightning strikes — 30,000 amps in less than a millisecond — means that they would not have had to strike the exact location of the rockets, but could potentially have hit dozens of meters away and still could have set off the projectiles.

Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on October 17, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

He said that equipment tracking lightning strikes can pinpoint them down to within a few hundred meters and in some cases less.

“It’s possible that if lightning struck near the launch mechanism, within a few dozen meters, that it could send current through this mechanism — about which I admit I’m not an expert. Theoretically, it could happen, spontaneously,” Yair said.

On Thursday morning, after a night of tense calm, the IDF announced it was allowing residents of the Israeli communities around the Gaza Strip to go back to their daily routines and was removing restrictions put in place on the border communities the day before.

Schools were allowed to reopen and farmers were permitted to go back to working their fields without the need for IDF permission.

The security cabinet ordered the military to take a harsher stance toward any violence from the Strip and the IDF sent reinforcements to the area in preparation for Friday’s clashes.

The uneasy ceasefire was brokered by Egypt and the United Nations, which scrambled to negotiate between the two sides, who do not speak directly to one another.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan said an Iron Dome anti-missile battery would be deployed in the Beersheba area in the wake of the attack, a possible signal Israel expects hostilities with Gaza to continue despite the tentative calm that had taken hold by Wednesday afternoon.

Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniya flashes the V for victory sign at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza city, on October 12, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.

There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.

Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. An Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.

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