The advent of cheap, simple-to-manufacture artillery rockets has added an effective new tool to the arsenal of both state and non-state armies. They out-flank the ground, sea and aerial defences which block access to their opponents’ rear areas. Simultaneously, the survivability of the shooter is significantly enhanced: they are difficult to locate. This tactical capability has strategic repercussions, enabling the organization procuring them to strike its rivals’ supposedly safe strategic and national assets.
The first cross-border rocket attack by Palestinians on Israel occurred on 16th September 1968. Eight rockets were fired by Palestinians from northern Jordan into the Israeli town of Beyt Shean. Since then many thousands of rockets of various ranges and payloads have been fired into Israel from Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai.[i] Over the decades Israel has responded variously with: preventative or retaliatory aerial, artillery and ground raids; temporary invasions of launch areas; and development of counter-rocket defences.[ii] Strategically, offensive responses to rocket attacks have rarely been different from those against other cross-border attacks on Israel. Collectively they are termed ‘Deterrence Operations’.[iii] They do not aspire to achieve a final, lasting solution to the conflict; only to reduce or temporarily stop those bombardments. As such, Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ in Gaza (November 2012) was the latest in a long succession of Deterrence Operations conducted by Israel. Some of these operations were limited to stand-off fire only (‘Accountability’ in 1993, ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in 1996). Others also included greater or lesser involvement of ground forces (‘Days of Repentance’ in 2004, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, ‘Cast Lead’ in 2008-2009).
Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’
Operation ‘Cast Lead’ achieved some months of relative calm on Israel’s border with Gaza. Later there was a gradual re-escalation in rocket attacks. Then, between 1st January 2012 and 14th November 2012 Palestinians fired approximately 725 rockets and mortar-bombs into Israel and conducted 23 cross-border raids and ambushes. On 14th November 2012 Israel retaliated by killing the commander of Hamas’ military forces and destroying the majority of Hamas’ and other groups’ long-range rocket launchers and rockets. Both these actions were intelligence successes of the first order, since both the commander and the rockets were well hidden, but the immediate consequence was an escalation in Palestinian attacks. Over the following week Israel and Hamas engaged in a small war, named Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ by Israel and the Second Gaza War by the Palestinians. During that week, Hamas and its smaller rivals in the Gaza Strip fired approximately 1,500 rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli towns and villages. Most of the rockets missed their intended targets, landing in unpopulated areas. About 150 rockets failed to cross the border and landed on Palestinian territory – some of them on Palestinian homes causing local casualties. 422 rockets were intercepted by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ anti-rocket defence system. 58 rockets landed in targeted areas, killing three Israeli civilians and three soldiers and wounding 232 Israelis (approximately 210 civilians and 20 soldiers). Another 29 civilians were wounded when a hand-delivered bomb exploded in a bus in Tel-Aviv.[iv] Israel responded by dropping guided bombs on Hamas’ and other armed groups’ launch-sites, headquarters, storage facilities, commanders, launch teams and smuggling tunnels (a total of approximately 1,500 targets all told). Palestinian casualties amounted to approximately 120 combatants killed, 900 combatants wounded, 30 to 50 civilians killed and 320 wounded.[v]
The war ended in a ceasefire mediated by Egypt, at the time headed by Hamas’ Egyptian patron, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas promised to cease attacks in return for more lenient border controls at the Egyptian border and fewer Israeli restrictions on Palestinian farmers and fishermen working close to the Israeli border.
A Year-Long Aftermath
The ceasefire was immediately followed by unarmed riots instigated by Hamas, which attempted to break down Israel’s border fence and test its political resolve to prevent Palestinians from entering Israeli territory. In one case a Palestinian armed with a knife infiltrated an Israel village near the border and attacked a woman in her home. She managed to escape and called the security forces. Towards the end of December, about five weeks after the ceasefire was declared, the Palestinians fired two mortar bombs into Israel. There is also an unconfirmed report that a rocket failed to cross the border and landed in Gaza.
Later, Palestinians gradually returned to attacking Israel, albeit on a much reduced scale. From the beginning of the ceasefire on 22nd November 2012 until 22nd November 2013 Palestinians conducted the following:
- Fired 59 rockets and 14 mortar-bombs into Israel (including the two mentioned above).
- Conducted six small-arms attacks on Israeli patrols and civilians near the border.
- Conducted 6 IED attacks on Israeli border patrols.
- Dug a number of tunnels into Israel. To date three tunnels have been discovered. There may be more. They were intended either to infiltrate attack teams into Israeli villages, or to place large bombs to be exploded under Israeli targets.
- Thrown two petrol bombs on Israeli border patrols.
Fortune smiled on the Israelis. In all these attacks only five soldiers were wounded in a single IED incident. However, a month later, in December 2013, an Israeli civilian was killed by a Palestinian sniper and the frequency of rocket and ground attacks increased.[vi]
Until the shooting of the civilian, Israeli responses attacks were intermittent and limited. On some occasions they did not respond; on others they responded with economic sanctions (when the tunnels were discovered, Israel refused to allow the import of building materials of the kind used in the tunnels but also needed for other civilian projects for a couple of months). In a few cases, Israel carried out preventative or retaliatory air strikes on launch teams or bases. Palestinian casualties are not clear: they have apparently been fairly few. The majority of casualties were wounded when they attacked the border fence or tried to cross it into Israel. IDF orders are to first warn Palestinians off with megaphones, then shoot nearby to scare, and finally shoot to wound. In some cases the wounds were perhaps fatal: Hamas sometimes reports fatalities caused by Israeli fire, but they are not reliable as a source. After attacks escalated in December, Israeli responses have become more aggressive. Each rocket or ground attack brings an air strike on the perpetrators, their commanders, or arsenals.
The arsenal of Hamas and its smaller rivals contained thousands of rockets when the fighting ceased, and they have received more since. So the reason for the reduced rate of attacks is not lack of capability. Therefore, the question arises: what has maintained the relative quiet – deterrence (fear of Israel’s response), or other factors?
Without listening in on Hamas government discussions, it is impossible to give a definite answer. However, as far as can be ascertained from official Hamas statements, Palestinian media reports on the situation in Gaza and information released by the Israeli authorities, the answer is apparently ‘both’. Some attacks were by Hamas, but most were by its smaller rivals. Hamas often tries to prevent attacks by these other groups, though certainly not for love of Israel. In addition to the heavy casualties they suffered they face a number of serious problems which they prefer to deal with without suffering the cost of Israeli military and economic retaliations:
- Falling out with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. That government was angry at Hamas for allowing Gaza to be used by more extreme Sunni groups who attacked Egyptian police in Sinai. In the most severe incident, prior to ‘Defensive Pillar’, a group from Gaza crossed into Egypt, attacked an Egyptian police station, killed 16 policemen, and stole their weapons and vehicles (including an armoured vehicle). They then used that vehicle to break through the Israeli-Egyptian border fence, and attempted to drive to an adjacent Israeli village. They were intercepted by Israeli forces. Most were killed in the ensuing firefight without Israeli casualties.
- The falling-out with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was an internal family spat. After the Egyptian armed forces reassumed control, Egyptian anger has had major consequences. The mainstay of Hamas economic power and military supply were the hundreds of supposedly clandestine tunnels dug under the Gaza-Egyptian border. The Mubarak regime pretended not to know their location (emphasis on ‘pretended’), allowing uncontrolled import of civilian and military goods into Gaza in violation of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. When the Morsi regime got angry with Hamas, the Egyptian army ‘suddenly’ located some tunnels, closed them, and imposed other sanctions. The resurgent military regime then ‘suddenly’ discovered the rest of the tunnels and shut almost all of them in a matter of weeks. Some were physically destroyed and some were just blocked. This has precipitated a financial crisis for the Hamas government in Gaza. ‘No imports’ means a severe reduction in income from customs taxation. Hamas employees are suffering severe wage delays, public projects are stopped half way through, etc. The Gaza population is not pleased, and Hamas’ popularity has declined. This is not a good time to start another war with Israel – especially since military imports are blocked as well.
- To add to their troubles, Hamas also fell out with its former allies, the Syrian regime and Iran. Both had supplied funds and weapons to Hamas, but stopped after Hamas declared support for its Syrian Sunni brethren fighting the regime in the Syrian Civil War. Recently Hamas decided that, given its troubles with the Egyptians, it has no choice but to change its tune on Syria in order to reconnect with Iranian financial and military support.
Hamas is struggling. It has other, more pressing issues than fighting Israel. It is also trying to recuperate its severely hurt armed forces. The success of the initial Israeli air strike was a severe shock. How did the Israelis know where all the long-range rockets and launchers were located, as well as the other ‘secret’ bases and sites that they attacked? What other supposed ‘secrets’ do they know? The success of the ‘Iron Dome’ negated their most powerful weapon. They need to think of new tactics for the future war, tactics which will cause more Israeli casualties. Hence the increased focus on digging tunnels under the border towards Israeli villages.
Hamas’ rivals do not care about Hamas’ economic and political woes. Their problem is getting the equipment they need. If Hamas is hurt by Israel, they gain political and military points in their rivalry with it. Also, by firing at Israel they get funds and support from other international Sunni jihadi groups. They do have to tread a thin line between doing something and doing too much, as that might goad Israel into a big response that would hurt them or compel Hamas into an all-out ‘cleaning-up’ operation against them, in order to save it from Israeli wrath.
So, to summarize: the relative quiet is the result of a mix of deterrence and other unrelated issues.
The time has come to assess Israel’s actions in the war. Without a doubt, the Israelis got what they wanted on the political level: relative quiet. ‘Relative quiet’ rather than ‘complete quiet’ because the Israelis are too experienced to expect more. As an Israeli joke, loosely translated, goes: ‘On coffee-breaks you drink coffee; on lunch-breaks you eat lunch; on smoke-breaks you smoke cigarettes; so why expect that on fire-breaks [the literal translation of the Hebrew term for ‘ceasefire’] the fire should cease?’ In that sense Israel’s strategy for Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ was a resounding success, even though Hamas also made some minor face-saving political gains (such as access to farming land and fishing areas adjacent to the border). Those measures have since proved troublesome for the Israelis, by facilitating attacks on Israeli patrols and Israeli farmers working adjacent to the border. The attackers approach the fence masked as innocent Palestinian farmers, to collect intelligence, prepare ambush sites and place bombs near to the fence. As long as they don’t actually touch the fence or carry arms overtly, Israeli troops have orders not to shoot.
However, individual Israeli tactics were less successful. There were of course some successes. The initial surprise attack enabled the destruction of the long-range rocket arsenal. Hamas and other groups suffered approximately 1,000 killed and wounded, including some 30 senior commanders; not an insignificant percentage of casualties and an excellent rate of exchange when compared to Israeli casualties. But, the real measure of tactical (rather than strategic or political) success or failure is that the attempt of the Israeli air force to suppress rocket-launches failed miserably. Despite continuous aerial surveillance and strikes, Hamas and the other groups still managed to fire 1,500 rockets in seven days (double the average daily rate fired by Hizbullah in 2006). Israeli air strikes seem to have barely affected the rate of rocket launches. Admittedly, except for three or four rockets, all those fired could reach ‘only’ three major cities, a dozen towns and several dozen villages in southern Israel (750,000 Israelis rather than the two million threatened by the bigger rocket types), but launches continued unabated to the last minute. Had it not been for the ‘Iron Dome’, approximately 480 of these rockets would have hit Israeli civilians, instead of ‘only’ 58. Israeli civilian casualties would probably have been some eight times higher, unless the population abandoned their homes and places of work and fled out of range.
Given the cost of ‘Iron Dome’ systems, and especially the interceptor missiles, Hamas will probably simply try to acquire so many rockets and launchers (costing only a fraction of Iron Dome) they can inundate the ‘Iron Dome’ with more than it can handle simultaneously, and then keep on firing until Israel runs out of interceptor missiles. Even if the Israeli air force doubles its launcher-hitting success rate in a future war, it still will not be able to suppress the launches to a bearable level. This teaches us that the stand-off aerial suppression tactic will simply not work if Hamas or Hizbullah are determined to conduct a lengthy exchange (as in the 34 day Second Lebanese War), as opposed to a short strike which they then end of their own volition. At the rate Hamas fired in ‘Defensive Pillar’ (double Hizbullah’s rate of fire in 2006), Hizbullah (with its present stocks) can maintain continuous fire every day for nine months without resupply![vii] Without Iron Dome’s success in ‘Defensive Pillar’, convincing Hamas to cease fire before incurring prohibitive Israeli civilian casualties and damage to economic infrastructure would have required either a ground invasion to capture the launch-areas or political concessions tantamount to an Israel surrender. In a future exchange, if Hamas or Hizbullah succeed in inundating or outlasting Iron Dome this harsh dilemma will confront the Israel government.
In 1991 Iraq launched some 40 missiles in six weeks – almost all at night. The Patriot anti-missile defence failed and the Coalition aerial missile-hunting campaign merely delayed launches. Tens of thousands of Israelis left their homes in targeted areas to sleep elsewhere, returning to work during the day. Israel chose not to respond because casualties and damage were minimal and the American-led Coalition was expected to defeat the Iraqis. In 2006 Hizbullah fired 4,000 rockets and mortar bombs into northern Israel in 34 days, threatening about a million Israelis. Many moved south temporarily. Then too the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying most of the longer-range rockets but failed completely against the shorter-range types. On 12th August 2006 the frustrated Israeli government ordered the IDF to conduct a major ground offensive into Lebanon but on the same day the UN declared a ceasefire to begin within 48 hours, which Hizbullah accepted, so the offensive was stopped.
Israel’s experiences are partly unique to its specific political, geographic and strategic situation. They can, however, be used as a basis for learning lessons relevant to others as well. Israel is a small state located close to most of its enemies. The wars of the USA and Europe are conducted overseas: their ‘home front’ is not exposed to rockets. However, conducting a war overseas makes them logistically dependent on airports and seaports, requires them to build large logistical and headquarter bases, and to defend the infrastructure and civilians of the host state. These may not be as politically important or militarily crucial as their own civilians, but when facing an enemy capable of firing a couple of hundred fairly accurate rockets a day, they do need to be defended.
Cheap, easily manufactured, long range rockets enable small military groups to strike their enemy’s hinterland easily, but are simultaneously a sign of military weakness. Conventional rocket warheads are less effective at producing mass casualties than hand-delivered suitcase bombs or close-range small-arms fire in a crowded civilian setting. They are preferred when the attacker cannot penetrate the enemy’s ground defences. The effectiveness of rockets is limited by the compromise between survivability on the one hand and range and payload on the other. Greater strategic effect requires longer range and larger payloads, so the launchers need to be bigger. This transforms them into easier targets for air power, thereby reducing the actual number that can be fired before the enemy air force locates and destroys the launchers. Smaller rocket launchers are easily hidden and very cheap and easy to manufacture, making the rocket force based on them almost impervious to air attacks.[viii] The strategic effect of smaller rockets depends on how close important targets are to the border and the number of rockets fired.
As Israel’s experiences have repeatedly shown, aerial power alone is not an effective tactic except in a limited set of scenarios. Unless overwhelmed by enormous salvos, anti-rocket defences can be effective. However, being very expensive to manufacture, these will probably be exhausted before the attacker’s store of rockets is depleted. Before that happens the defender must either achieve a favourable ceasefire agreement or conduct ground operations to capture launch sites within range of one’s civilians. Therefore, for many scenarios, armies must retain the ability to rapidly capture ground to a depth equal to the range of most of the enemy’s rockets and then comb the entire area in order to locate and destroy launchers and rocket stores. Even when facing guerrilla-style enemies, this requires a regular mechanized offensive capability. It needs to attack through the anti-armour and anti-personnel fire that many of these groups are now acquiring;[ix] to advance deeply; and then split up into self-contained battlegroups to conduct combing and clearing operations. Rockets and launchers are easier to replace than proficient personnel, so killing the manufacturers and the launcher teams is more effective than destroying the launchers and rockets, both for the short term (reducing the rate of fire) and for the long term (achieving deterrence).
Even the most effective and efficient anti-rocket operation will need time to achieve results. The home front must be prepared: not only physically, to live through bombardment; but also psychologically, to understand that results will not be immediate or perfect. Some rockets will get through even at the last minute. That is not a sign of the general failure of the operation. An operation’s success can be deduced only in retrospect: measured by the continuation, reduction, or complete cessation of enemy attacks.
[i] The exact number is moot, but is probably in the order of 25,000 – more than half of them since 2000.
[ii] ‘Preventative Actions’ are conducted when intelligence provides early warning; ‘Retaliatory Actions’ are conducted after the fact to punish the group launching the rockets or mortar-bombs.
[iii] For a brief description of the development of Israel’s strategy vis-à-vis these attacks see: Hecht, E., ‘Israeli Strategy in the First Lebanon War, 1982-1985’, Strategic Misfortunes – Infinity Journal Special Edition, October 2012, pp 16-20.
[iv] There were also a handful of attacks on Israel from other directions (the West Bank, Jerusalem, Syria and Lebanon) but only two more Israelis were wounded. Both were civilians.
[v] The numbers are based on official Israeli and Palestinian accounts. There are discrepancies between the accounts as to the exact number of Palestinian casualties, so the figures should be regarded as approximate.
[vi] Since then several dozen more rocket, mortar, sniping and border-ambush attacks have taken place.
[vii] According to published official Israeli intelligence figures Hizbullah has 80,000 to 100,000 rockets. Most of them are short-range types, but some thousands are medium- or long-range types.
[viii] They are almost invariably hit only after launching and are extremely cheap and quick to replace. They can be regarded as single-shot launchers.
[ix] In 2006 Hizbullah fired a couple of hundred anti-tank missiles (mostly Sagger, but also Fagot, TOW and Kornet). Hamas too has a variety of anti-tank missiles and so do the rebel forces in Syria.