Militant Rocket Hit Base Linked to Israeli Nuclear Missile Program

A rocket most likely fired by Hamas militants during their Oct. 7 attack on Israel struck an Israeli military base where, experts say, many of the country’s nuclear-capable missiles are based, according to a visual analysis of the attack’s aftermath by The New York Times.

While the missiles themselves weren’t hit, the rocket’s impact, at the Sdot Micha base in central Israel, sparked a fire that approached missile storage facilities and other sensitive weaponry.

Israel has never acknowledged the existence of its nuclear arsenal, though Israeli whistle-blowers, U.S. officials and satellite imagery analysts all agree that the country possesses at least a small number of nuclear weapons.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, told The Times that he estimates there are most likely 25 to 50 nuclear-capable Jericho missile launchers at the base. According to experts and declassified U.S. government documents, Israel’s Jericho missiles are equipped to carry nuclear warheads.

Those warheads are most likely kept in a separate location away from the base and thus were not under threat during the attack, said Mr. Kristensen, who has studied the base.

The previously unreported strike on Sdot Micha is the first known instance of Palestinian militants hitting a site suspected of containing Israeli nuclear weaponry. It’s unclear if they knew the specifics of what they were targeting, beyond the base simply being a military facility. Hamas, the group that fired the majority of the rockets on Oct. 7, did not respond to requests for comment.

But the targeting of one of the most sensitive military locations in Israel shows that the scope of the Oct. 7 attacks may have been even greater than previously known — and that rockets can penetrate the airspace around Israel’s closely guarded strategic weapons.

The attack on the area around Sdot Micha involved a series of rockets over several hours, according to warning alarm data. It’s unclear how many rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, or managed to slip through and hit the base in addition to the one found by The Times. In some cases around the country on Oct. 7, Iron Dome became overwhelmed by the amount of incoming fire or ran out of interceptor missiles.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on The Times’s findings. Since Oct. 7, though, Israel appears to have recognized and responded to the threat of rocket attacks at Sdot Micha. Recent satellite images show new earthen berms and barriers have been built around military positions near the rocket impact location, presumably to defend against shrapnel or blast debris from future attacks.

The Times first identified the fire caused by the attack on Sdot Micha using public NASA satellite imagery for detecting wildfires. There has not been a fire — from any cause — of similar magnitude at the base since at least 2004.

Further evidence of the attack exists in publicly available satellite imagery, rocket alarm records and social media posts, which also revealed efforts to fight the brush fire ignited by the fallen rocket.

The rocket struck within the confines of the base, located 25 miles northeast of Gaza and 15 miles west of Jerusalem, at around 10 a.m. It landed in a small ravine adjacent to a Jericho missile facility, a large radar system and a battery of air defense missiles. The explosion quickly started a fire in the thick, dry vegetation.

While The Times could not confirm if other rockets also struck the base, satellite imagery captured at 10:30 a.m. shows the fire near the Jericho missiles was the only one on the base.

More satellite images taken in the hours after the strike captured the rapid spread of the fire and Israeli firefighters’ efforts to stem its growth. At least two firefighting aircraft and streaks of bright red fire retardant were visible near the fire. The next day, a satellite image revealed that new roads and firebreaks had been cut through the woods to contain the flames, which appeared to be extinguished.

Decker Eveleth, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who analyzed the images, said it appeared that “paths were created by firefighting vehicles making sure the fire didn’t get near the launchers.”

According to a University of Maryland database tracking attacks on nuclear facilities, there have been only about five known strikes worldwide on bases with nuclear weapons in the past. But because of the inherent secrecy of nuclear weapons, the exact number may never be publicly known. However, Gary Ackerman, one of the researchers who established the database, said the Oct. 7 attack was unique. “This is not something that happens every day,” he said.

Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups typically fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities relatively close to Gaza. Indeed, they fired thousands of projectiles at these locations on Oct. 7. On the rarer occasions that the groups fire longer-range rockets, they usually target Israeli cities farther from Gaza like Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion rather than the military bases storing advanced weaponry that, in some cases, are much closer to Gaza.

The Sdot Micha base, in existence since 1962 and clearly visible on public satellite imagery, occupies thousands of acres of rolling hills. While rockets fired by militants in the Gaza Strip can be inaccurate, it is unlikely Sdot Micha was hit by accident. There are virtually no other targets — besides sensitive military facilities — within two miles of the rocket’s impact site. There are also few important, nonmilitary targets in the greater region as a whole because of its sparse population.

Though the fire burned approximately 40 acres at the base, weaponry and equipment remained safe. The flames stopped about 1,000 feet from the nearest suspected Jericho missile facility, but approached within 400 feet of a large radar system built on a hill at the base, according a Times analysis of satellite imagery.

Mr. Kristensen observed that, even if the fire had reached the missiles, their underground, tunneled storage facilities were built to withstand damage. Still, he noted the risks inherent in a fire of this size burning near volatile fuel and munition depots. “All sorts of things can go wrong,” he said.

Alexander Cardia and Scott Reinhard contributed production.