Hamas’s recent political setbacks are well known. The most punishing was the downfall of Egyptian president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi and his replacement by President al-Sisi, who destroyed the tunnel industry from which Hamas derived most of its revenues to rule Gaza.
This was supplemented by moves on the part of the Palestinian Authority to deny Hamas revenue by reducing salaries to 70,000 PA employees in Gaza, by far the largest group of consumers in Gaza. The goal was similar to al-Sisi’s intent – to reduce imports from Israel means also less tax revenue for Hamas.
The downturn in Hamas’ fortunes is not only political, but equally in the exercise of terrorism. Starting from very lethal suicide terrorism in the 1990s through the Second Intifada, the substitutes since then – ballistic, tunnel and now kite terrorism – are decreasingly effective.
How effective suicide attacks by Hamas and its Islamic Jihad ally were in the Second Intifada can be gauged in the numbers of its victims. In the course of three years, these two organizations were responsible for the murder of 400 Israeli citizens (and tens of foreigners), with Hamas doing the lion’s share of the bloodletting. Its effectiveness did not only end there. Suicide bombings brought about the only absolute contraction of the Israeli economy since the state’s inception – what no war with the Arab states brought about, including year-and-a-half-long War of Independence.
The effectiveness of suicide bombing, in fact, the very phenomenon of this lethal means, came to an end after Israel reconquered Area A in the Palestinian Authority in 2002, with nearly daily penetrations and arrests of would-be terrorists since then. The destruction of the sanctuaries that enabled Hamas to plan elaborate suicide bombings – coupled with the smashing of its human infrastructure through incessant arrests of its operants – considerably reduced the capabilities of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
When this happened, Hamas, like most violent organizations, looked for substitute means to hurt the enemy. The decline in suicide bombings was followed by the spectacular rise from 2004 in missile launchings and by continuous improvement in the payload they carried and in the distance they traversed – so much so that by 2006, the number of Israelis directly affected by the missiles increased from 25,000 inhabitants in the immediate areas bordering Gaza to hundreds of thousands who lived in major cities such Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon and beyond.
For all the feelings of terror that the launching of over 14,000 missiles between 2004-2014 engendered, the phenomenon largely came to an end after the third bout between Hamas and Israel in the summer of 2014. The effects of missile terrorism were not nearly as costly to Israel as suicide bombings. Military expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product and as a percentage of total government expenditures continued to decline, whereas at the height of the Second Intifada they remained level.
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Missile terrorism was far less costly in human terms as well. Even if we take all the casualties of the three rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, mortalities add up to approximately 120, less than one-third the human price that Israel paid during the wave of suicide bombings. Note also the wave of missile terrorism took place over 10 years, compared to suicide bombing wave, which lasted three years.
Whereas the effectiveness of suicide terrorism was vastly reduced as a result of military punishment meted by the IDF and the Israel Security Agency, missile terrorism became less effective over time due to technological developments that denied Hamas much of the potency of this means of terrorism.
BESA associate Uzi Rubin, in his extensive studies on the Iron Dome anti-missile system published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, plotted its growing effectiveness over time. In the flare-up in 2014, only two of the 72 Israeli deaths during the 55 days of fighting resulted from missile launchings.
By then, Hamas had already figured out that tunnel attacks, at first considered a supplement to its arsenal, could become a major substitute for missile launchings.
Just as missile terrorism was far less effective than suicide bombing, tunnel terrorism was less effective than both, essentially foiled by technological developments.
Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas scored successes in tunnel forays in 2006 with the killing of two tank crew members and the capture of a third, for which it successfully negotiated the release of over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists in 2011. During the course of the 2014 campaign, Hamas used tunneling to surprise Israeli forces and succeeded in killing 11 soldiers in three separate incidents.
Significantly, it never used the tunnels it dug into Israel territory, partially out of fear that Israel had developed means to monitor and mine them, as indeed it proved in the killing of at least 12 Islamic Jihad terrorists in October 2017. In any event, the price tag to Israel of tunnel terrorism was only a fraction of the costs of missile terrorism.
It is against the backdrop of the never-ending quest to find substitutes to increasingly ineffective terrorist measures that Hamas’ innovation of kite terrorism can be understood.
Though it is too early to say conclusively that this means is the poorest substitute of all those that preceded it, it would seem that a solution will be found before it becomes lethal rather than merely destructive, as it is at present.
Of course, a technological solution would be best, but in its absence, some innovative combat moves against the perpetrators would be welcome.
Increasingly admired as a military force that reacts effectively to the innovations of its enemies, the IDF is now faced with a golden opportunity to show that operating beyond enemy lines in daring and innovative ways is not only a legacy of the past.
The writer is a professor of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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