Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Gaza Rocket War

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History and strategic reality

By Dore Gold


Israel’s ground incursion into the Gaza Strip that began on March 1, 2008 should not have triggered much international debate. After all, for more than seven years Palestinian terrorist organisations have been intentionally firing rockets indiscriminately against Israeli civilian targets, especially at the Israeli town of Sderot which has absorbed roughly 45 percent of the nearly 3,000 attacks that have been launched. As Israeli Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter noted on March 2, with the inclusion of the city of Ashkelon in the Palestinian target list, the number of Israeli civilians under rocket threat from Gaza has increased from 25,000 to 250,000.

In complete contrast, Israeli military operations in Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket attacks have been directed at military targets, including rocket factories, rocket squads, and terrorist commanders. When Palestinian civilian casualties have occurred, they have been an unintended by-product of Israel’s self-defence efforts. The fact that the Palestinian terrorist organisations often position their launch sites in urban areas and stockpile their weaponry in densely populated territory, like the Jabaliya refugee camp, in many cases makes them a party to the loss of Palestinian civilians - who serve, in effect, as human shields. While it is often forgotten, Israel completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005; it was clear from Israel’s disengagement that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had absolutely no interest to operate in Gaza over the last number of years, unless Israel was attacked from Gaza territory.

Nonetheless, Israel very quickly became the subject of harsh international criticism. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel’s “disproportionate and excessive use of force.” The EU presidency followed this language, referring to “the recent disproportionate use of force by the Israel Defence Forces against the Palestinian population in Gaza.” Western armies are engaged in asymmetric warfare against the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in Iraq, yet no such statements are made with regard to these legitimate battles in the war on terrorism. To their credit, the US and Britain rejected efforts to have the UN Security Council adopt a draft resolution further condemning Israel, but the discussions in New York demonstrated how UN member-states had little idea of the magnitude of the rocket threat that Israel was facing and could also face in the future.

In order to best understand the main factors affecting the Palestinian rocket threat to Israel from Gaza, it is useful to examine the data in the accompanying map and chart, which uses data from the IDF General Staff Operations Division as its source. What emerges from this data are the following conclusions.

Rocket Fire Began and Grew When Fatah Controlled Gaza
The Qassam rocket threat started in 2001 and grew when the Palestinian Authority was under Fatah control. Hamas introduced the Qassam rocket for the first time in 2001, and there was a steady increase in Qassam rocket fire against Israel from 2002 through 2005.

Even after the death of Yasser Arafat in Nov. 2004, Qassam rocket fire from Gaza continued under the regime of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). True, Abbas called on Palestinians to stop firing rockets into Israel in 2006, but he and the Fatah leadership were either unwilling or unable to halt the Hamas attacks as they increased - with only one exception. In Aug. 2005, Qassam rocket attacks were dramatically reduced so that they would not get in the way of Israel’s Gaza pullout.
Additionally, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah in Gaza also fires rockets into Israel, and a Fatah squad in Tulkarm in the West Bank made two attempts to launch rockets at Israel.

Palestinian Rocket Fire Jumped After Gaza Disengagement
After disengagement the number of confirmed rocket strikes against Israel increased by more than 500 percent. During the year 2005, Israel absorbed 179 rocket strikes. Gaza disengagement was implemented in Aug. 2005. The number of rocket strikes in the year 2006 shot up to 946 - a five-fold increase.

The 2005 Gaza disengagement provided Hamas with a sense of empowerment and self-confidence that led to a clear-cut escalation in the employment of the rocket capabilities it had previously acquired. Politically, this led to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in Jan. 2006.

The disengagement from Gaza led to the loss of Israeli control over the Philadelphi route between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Sinai, allowing for a significant increase in the range and quantity of rockets in the Palestinian arsenal. What is dramatically new in the rocket attacks in 2008 are the range and quantity of rockets being fired. Ashkelon, a city of 120,000, was repeatedly struck by Katyusha (Grad) rockets in late Feb. 2008. In 2007 and 2008, the Israeli city of Netivot was also a Palestinian target.

Prior to 2006, the number of Palestinian rocket attacks rarely reached 50 per month. By early 2008, Palestinian organisations displayed a capability of launching 50 rockets per day. Two events further contributed to the ease with which Hamas and other organisations could import materials and know-how for expanding their rocket forces: first, the Hamas military takeover in Gaza during June 2007, and second, the breaching of the Egyptian-Gaza border fence in Jan. 2008.

As a result, the quantities of explosives and foreign-produced, longer-range rockets that could enter Gazan territory increased dramatically. True, the Palestinian organisations had used tunnels in past years to smuggle weaponry from Egyptian Sinai into Gaza. But clearly, once Hamas was fully in control in Gaza and the Egyptian border was regularly breached, the scale of this smuggling mushroomed.

Increasingly longer-range rockets came into Gaza freely as well. Israeli security forces recently discovered in the western Negev the remains of a new 175 mm rocket of Iranian origin that has a range of 26 kilometres.

Should present trends continue, Israel will have to contend with yet another generation of rockets that could be deployed beyond the Katyushas that are hitting Ashkelon. Hamas spokesmen have already expressed their ambition of extending the range of their rockets to Ashdod, Israel’s second major seaport for handling international cargo. Israeli security sources expect that Iran will try to smuggle its Fajr rockets to Gaza in the future. A 45-kilometre range Fajr 3, for example, could be smuggled in sections and assembled in Gaza.

The Failure of EU Monitors
In the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered the Rafah Crossing Agreement on Nov. 15, 2005, to regulate the Gaza-Egyptian border. The agreement provided for third-party monitors who were supplied by the European Union. The European monitors did not succeed in halting the flow of weapons or cash to the terrorist organisations.

Moreover, as the security situation in the Gaza Strip deteriorated in 2006 and 2007, the EU monitors repeatedly withdrew from the border area. In addition, Egypt has been completely unhelpful in the Rafah border area; Cairo even allowed Hamas operatives to leave Gaza in transit to Teheran, where they were trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps before returning to Gaza.

Two Key Areas of Concern
Israel currently faces many difficult choices in the face of continued Qassam and Katyusha rocket attacks on its cities, and Israel’s security establishment will ultimately have to address two specific areas:

The Philadelphi Route - As long as the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border is open for Hamas smuggling, the risk to Israel will grow, as Iran exports rockets of increasing range to the Gaza Strip. The port of Ashdod is the next likely target, but should Fajr rockets reach Gaza, there is no reason why Hamas cannot pose a threat to Tel Aviv.

The Northern Gaza Launch Sites - The short-range Qassam rockets used by the Palestinians are locally produced and, therefore, cannot be halted by efforts to close the Philadelphi route. However, control of the launch areas in northern Gaza could significantly reduce the ability of Hamas to harass Sderot and the communities of the western Negev with rocket and mortar fire.

Israel’s war against Hamas is hardly over. As Hamas attacks continue, Israel will have to take further measures to suppress Hamas rocket fire. Presently, the Hamas leadership understands that repeated Katyusha attacks against Ashkelon will result in an Israeli ground incursion. But without addressing the Philadelphi route or the northern Gaza launch sites, it is doubtful that these kinds of deterrence calculations alone will bring the Hamas rockets to a halt and alleviate the misery of the Israeli residents of Sderot.

Dr. Dore Gold, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN from 1997-99, is President of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs and author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003) and The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007). © Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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