Hamas last escalation: The rocket use logic
Year 3 - Week 23
ISSN 2603 - 9931
Last week Hamas, the Islamist Resistance Movement governing Gaza Strip, launched the biggest barrage of artillery over the South of Israel since 2014, in what was known as Operation Protective Edge. This last attack launched 28 mortar projectiles which landed in the area, and although many of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome, the number or projectiles couldn’t give time to recharge the Iron Dome intercepting missiles launching system, so at least one landed on a kindergarten yard, fortunately without children on it.
Contextualizing the rocket attacks, they started at the end of the II Intifada from Gaza Strip, after Ariel Sharon politics started to enforce a de facto blockade to fragment Hamas structure into Gaza and West Bank territories and consequently dividing its capabilities. The Gaza disengagement, when the same Sharon dictated the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantle of the settlements in the territory, giving pace to the seal of the Strip, in parallel to the construction of the West Bank Wall, finally cracked over suicide operations, the main Palestinian resistance tactic between 1993 and 2005, to change the game rules into two main dynamics: while West Bank returned to civil disobedience movements combined with low-tech terrorist actions –mainly car rammings and stabbings- Gaza became the workshop of a new model of resistance based on artillery and mainly mortars and rockets, in a technical progression until 2014.
The rocket threat evolved as Hamas consolidates its power in its traditional Gaza stronghold. In 2006 Hamas won legislative elections, defeating traditional al-Fatah –the former Yasser Arafat party, since 2004 under the ruled of Mahmud Abbas- starting a clash for the control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Al-Fatah, with the support of the US and especially the one of Israel, ostracized Hamas, preventing the resistance movement to participate in the formation of a government. Tension between the two factions reached its peak in June 2007, with Gaza Strip on the edge of a civil war between Hamas and al-Fatah. Hamas established a de facto government based on the creation of an own security force, the Tanfidhya or Executive Force, formed by former PNA police forces loyal to Hamas and members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades –Hamas military wing- to reestablish order. The better prepared and well supported Tanfidhya soon gained control over the Strip, expelling most of the Security Forces loyal to al-Fatah under threat of being extrajudiciary assassinated. By the end of June 2007 and with severe economic shortcomings, Hamas effectively controlled Gaza Strip. Despite the previous use of rockets it is not until this moment when they become the new modus operandi in the Palestinian terrorist insurgency.
To understand the tactical shift we must consider the context. The blockade prevented Gazans and especially Hamas cadres to carry out any kind of operation in Israeli territory, so the use of artillery seemed a good operative option. Hamas followed the doctrine set by Hizbullah during the second Lebanon war in July 2006, when the Lebanese terrorist group launched a massive mortar and rocket attack over the north of Israel, threatening even cities as Haifa, implementing a model of intense and prolonged attack while hiding the rocket launchers and carrying out ambushes against the Israeli ground forces trying to disrupt the attacks. With Iranian and Syrian training, Hizbullah developed a whole arsenal where the most basic models of rockets were the Katyusha and Grad models, combined with electronic warfare capabilities.
Hizbullah’s success was adopted as a model by Hamas and the other operative forces in Gaza Strip, especially Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The rocket program was design as a backup plan in the nineties by Yehya Ayash, “The Engineer”, the father of the suicide bombings Hamas’ program, who also applied his skills to the development of an artillery program. His direct heir on that matter is Mohammad Ibrahim Diab al-Masri, current –and undercover- leader of the al-Qassam Brigades, better known as Mohammad Deif, who during the II Intifada designed the first models of al-Qassam rockets, made with homemade explosives and pipe tubes and with just a range of about 5 kilometers, targeting the closest cities around Gaza Strip, as Sderot. Hamas started a whole armamentistic program in Gaza’s Islamic University based on four areas of development: a) fabrication of Qassam rockets of different range; b) improvement the rockets quality in terms of heads and explosive charges, engines to increase range and better quality components to improve their storage and increase the stockpile in case of a sudden escalation; c) import into Gaza Grad and Katyusha rockets from Hizbullah and Iran through black market channels, and d) fabrication of basic mortar projectiles to harass military posts and urban nucleus in Gaza’s perimeter. The use of rockets sought likewise to reduce the cost of buying weapons in the black market and the risks of those stockpiles being intercepted by the Israeli army, as happened with the Karine A affair, which left Arafat’s military capabilities reduced. The Qassam rocket model was adopted by the different militant factions under different names: in this way the al-Aqsa Brigades called it al-Aqsa, al-Quds, with four slightly improved categories was used by Sarayat al-Quds –the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad- and the Samud, used by the PFLP. By 2002 Hamas introduced the Qassam 2, with an improved range of seven kilometers, and also adopted by the other factions, and after the Lebanon War the Grad, of Russian fabrication and around 20 kilometers range. Al this stockpile was put into use during the first Gaza War, operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009), where Hamas tried to emulate Hizbullah by launching incessantly rockets in the perimeter Israeli cities. However, the Israeli intervention put an end to the first escalation and allowed another gap of cold war in the area.
Until 2012 and despite the weakened capabilities of the Palestinian factions, the rocket program continued. Two elements were key in this second stage evolution. First, the geopolitical context during the Arab Spring moved the focus of attention from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to other hotspots as Libya or Syria; in this context, Iran strengthen its support to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad through technical training applied to the fabrication of rockets as well as the supply of the advanced Fajr 5 -333 mm rocket with about 75 kilometers range, putting at risk cities as Tel Aviv-. In addition to that, Iran provided Hamas government with military advisors during the II Gaza War or operation Pillar of Defense. And second, until his death in November 2012 –which in fact triggered the II Gaza War- the figure of Ahmad Jaabari, chief commander of the al-Qassam Brigades in the absence of Mohammad Deif, who focused on the reconstruction and improvement of Hamas stockpiles in coordination with other resistance movements. Moreover, Hamas focused on the improvement in terms of precision of the light, medium and heavy mortars. That was the main flaw of the Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (CRAM) system, the Iron Dome, deployed by Israel during the Second Gaza War around the Strip: even though the system was extremely accurate in intercepting rockets targeting urban nucleus, because of the short range and elliptical trajectory of mortars their interception resulted problematic. Pillar of Defense was based on the interception of rockets coming from Gaza with the Iron Dome, and the neutralization of launcher sites with air bombings during only ten days, limiting in that way the level of destruction, but also allowing a quicker recovery of Hamas artillery capabilities.
The Iranian technical training allowed Hamas the development of its homemade rocket arsenal, in a conventionalization of force favored by its territorial, political and social control of Gaza Strip. This newly acquired capabilities were shown during the third Gaza War. Hamas capabilities included medium range Chinese and Iranian 107 mm. rockets, 122 mm Russian Grad rockets of medium range and improved long range versions of around 50 kilometers, Iranian Fajr 5 and its equivalent homemade version J-80 –named after Jabari-, and long-range Syrian M302, with a range of 160 kilometers and its homemade equivalent R-160 –named after sheikh Rantissi, assassinated by Israel in 2004. This latter development approached Hamas to the paradigm of conventionalization of force, even though not at the same level of Hizbullah.
Despite the military effectiveness in terms of destruction of artillery, and despite Israeli multilayered security alert system, which integrates shelters, sirens based on radar-detection systems, and the Iron Dome intercepting system, rockets must be interpreted at the tactical level as a terrorist weapon devised as an at-distance highly destructive deployable explosive. The psychological impact of non-guided artillery with terrorist purposes as it is the case of rockets and mortars is that there is no specific target, so the projectile may fall anywhere, randomly targeting soft and hard targets equally. As aforementioned. Despite the Israeli multilayered security system, the psychological effects in terms of anxiety attacks, sleep deprivation and daily routine disruption are common during these escalation periods.
There are different interesting elements to notice in last week –foiled- flare-up. First, it happened after two months of civil resistance actions organized by Hamas as the Great March of Return, which has been concentrating masses of Palestinians at the fence with Israel. Despite the critics against Israel for the Nakba day massacre, last week escalation was a game changer. Secondly, allegedly the mortar barrage came in response for the Israeli destruction of a tunnel entering in Israeli territory which costed the life to a number of Palestinian Islamic jihad operatives. Interestingly enough, the Muqawama Council, the organ lead by the al-Qassam Brigades which includes members of all the resistance factions in Gaza Strip, normally operates in a join manner, while in this case only Palestinian Islamic Jihad was allowed to respond in a quite contained way –with locally-affecting weapons-, of which we may infer that both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad looked for a restrained response in order to protect their legitimacy in front of their social bases while not provoking a no-return situation of full-scale war. The use of short range mortar projectiles reinforce this theory, although it might be also explained by the difficulties of the Iron Dome to intercept these type of weapons, especially when launched in a high number, which prevents the intercepting missiles barrage to be reloaded on time. And finally, against all odds, there were no escalation: a barrage was shot, Israel responded in strength, and in opposition to what happened in the previous three wars, the escalation was contained. Moreover, last Friday Hamas continued with demonstrations along the fence, so apparently the game rules haven’t change that much. Hamas keeps the control in the Strip and even in need of balancing its power in order to not to lose the street, it is the one deciding the reach of the use of violence and the strategy of resistance.
* The historical background is an excerpt from the author's Ph.D thesis.