Rocket attacks from Gaza
The firefight in Gaza last month that exposed Israeli forces, and the subsequent barrage of rockets carried out by Hamas, have once again brought to the forefront of public discussion the strength of Hamas’s firepower compared with Israeli deterrence.
Although the massive firing of 460 rockets and mortar shells at the Gaza envelope and Ashkelon areas in the 48 hours following the incident constituted a new record in the sheer number of rockets launched, it was unfortunately an extremely familiar phenomenon. Throughout 2018, Hamas and other terrorist organizations launched hundreds of rockets toward Israel. In July and August alone, Israel suffered a barrage of 180 and 220 rockets and mortar shells, respectively.
In retrospect, it appears that this latest round of rocket attacks on Israel began back in 2001, with the intensity increasing significantly following Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The main organizations responsible for these attacks are Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Resistance Committees, Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Rocket range is increasing all the time. Locally made Palestinian Qassam rockets can already reach up to 10 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, and Grad rockets can reach up to 40 kilometers. In addition, Hamas has rockets with a range of 70 kilometers that can reach the greater Tel Aviv region; a small number of Iranian-made Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets that were made with Korean knowhow; as well as M-75 and M-302r, some of which Hamas produces in Gaza and some that are brought in from Syria and can reach distances beyond Tel Aviv.
Furthermore, the Palestinians have recently fired dozens of mortar shells on the Gaza envelope communities near the border and on Israeli security forces as they guard the region near the fence. The IDF has carried out eight military operations in the Gaza Strip to date, which have not brought about long-lasting quiet. Hamas and the other terrorist organizations have not altered their strategies since they began launching rockets at Israel.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Resistance Committees have been carefully examining Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Hezbollah for years. What they’ve seen is that Israel has dramatically failed to create any type of deterrence, which Hezbollah has taken advantage of to reinforce its array of rockets that it plans to use against the State of Israel. Hezbollah began by smuggling in weapons from Syria and Iran, and slowly established a local industry that has the capability to manufacture massive amounts of a variety of weapons.
Hamas and the other organizations have a large workforce of 25,000 armed fighters, and an even wider circle of volunteers, some of whom have studied engineering and have extensive knowledge in weapon development. The relative quiet the Gaza Strip has experienced these last few years has enabled Hamas to operate almost without any interference and to locally produce thousands of rockets. This production line is financed by Persian Gulf states and the European Union, which allocate tens of millions of dollars to Hamas.
ISRAEL’S STATE security cabinet convenes from time to time to evaluate the situation and decide the country’s appropriate response to rockets being fired into Israel. In the meantime, however, while the politicians are talking, terrorist cells continue to fire hundreds of rockets at Israel’s southern communities. It’s obvious that neither side is interested in letting the situation escalate into an all-out war, and so the Israel Air Force responds with select attacks on rocket-launching sites.
Hamas’s strategy has proved to be correct. Together with the other terrorist organizations operating out of the Gaza Strip, it succeeded in launching hundreds of rockets within a matter of days. Hamas decides the intensity and timing of rocket launchings, and whether or not a ceasefire should be called, even though Israel has enormous military power and advanced technological capabilities.
The ultimate question is, how can these terrorist organizations have succeeded in firing so many rockets into Israel despite the latter’s preeminent defense system? And why hasn’t this activity been thwarted? The simple and absurd answer lies, on the one hand, in Israel’s lack of strategy and initiative and, on the other, in the Palestinians’ success in creating a non-symmetrical battle structure vis-à-vis the IDF. Hamas launches simple, unsophisticated mortar shells into Israel using cheap launchers that they hide in residents’ homes and in tunnels. These are very effective tools to use against Israel’s sophisticated and superior systems.
From Hamas’s point of view, they are successfully achieving their goals: disrupting Israeli civilians’ lives, undermining the social and political fabric of the country, and bypassing the security barrier that Israel built around the Gaza Strip. Hamas had many years to study Israel’s actions against Hezbollah and has learned that there are many ways it can threaten Israel without going overboard, which would then require that Israel retaliate by going to war.
Although the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the IDF are highly skilled at acquiring valuable intelligence about the ongoings within the Gaza Strip and the specific locations of senior activists, the fact is that mortar launchers are mobile and can be quickly assembled and placed in residential buildings and public institutions, and so the IDF refrains from attacking these sites. According to Israeli intelligence sources, there are tens of thousands of rocket launchers currently installed in the Gaza Strip.
The true solution lies in the capability of Israeli intelligence to provide accurate and up-to-date information on the location of rocket launchers, weapons depots and senior Hamas operatives. But acquiring this intel is not sufficient to thwart rocket attacks. Israel must prepare a clear strategy and an orderly plan of action to deal with rocket attacks. As long as we fear escalation, try only to contain the conflict, and respond with measured actions for fear of being blamed for using excessive force, the status quo will drag on and we will never succeed in ending this conflict once and for all.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet. Translated by Hannah Hochner.