The swirl of rockets and rumors

Truce talks end second round of Israel-Hamas fighting.

antebellum south 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
antebellum south 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist militia Hamas escalated its rocket fire and terror activity against Israel over recent weeks to intolerable levels, forcing Israeli leaders to launch a major military operation to suppress the rocket barrages and restore deterrence along the volatile Gaza border. The outcome of the latest clashes between Israel and Hamas remains uncertain, but what is clear is that the Iron Dome rocket shield and the political uprisings of the Arab Spring have dramatically shifted the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Breaking point
The latest round of fighting erupted in mid-November after three recent spikes in rocket barrages on southern Israel ended in shaky cease-fires brokered by Egypt. The rockets then began flying yet again, but what triggered the IDF operation was actually a series of crossborder terror attacks on the ground which confirmed that Hamas itself was brazenly engaged once again in “armed struggle” against Israel, and not just allowing junior terror militias to do the dirty work.
The slide into conflict began when an Israeli soldier was wounded while opening a booby-trapped gate on the border fence early last month, followed by an anti-tank rocket fired at an IDF jeep patrolling the border with Gaza.
Then Hamas set off a massive explosion in a tunnel extending deep into Israeli territory in a bid to repeat the cross-border raid used to abduct Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit over six years ago.
Israeli leaders had seen enough and ordered the IDF to spring into action, with its first target being the top Hamas military commander in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who had overseen the Schalit kidnapping as well as the expansion of the Hamas rocket arsenal over recent years. When a precision hellfire missile locked in on his car racing through Gaza City, the IDF’s Operation “Pillar of Cloud” was underway.
Over the ensuing days Israeli air strikes targeted other Hamas militiamen along with underground rocket launching sites, weaponssmuggling tunnels, Hamas command posts and weapons storage facilities.
With many of these sites located in densely-populated areas of Gaza, the IDF was forced to take careful aim to avoid civilian casualties.
Yet despite the punishing blows to Hamas, the menacing volleys of rockets from Gaza kept coming into southern Israel, forcing over a million residents of the Negev to constantly huddle in their bomb shelters. Before long Hamas also rolled out its newly-acquired, Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles and launched them towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem some 50 miles away, bringing over four million Israelis within its range. It marked the first time these major Israeli cities had sounded their air raid sirens in the face of hostile fire since the 1991 Gulf War.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak determined this had crossed a red line and ordered up 75,000 reservists to prepare for a ground incursion into Gaza. Yet as IDF troops and armor began to amass along the border, international efforts ratcheted up to contain the fighting and achieve a longer-lasting truce arrangement.
With IDF armored columns poised just outside Gaza and rockets still flying in both directions, their vapor trials swirling and crisscrossing in the skies above, several days passed awaiting word on whether the tense stand-off would end in yet another fragile truce.
Both Israel and Hamas were putting forth stiff negotiating terms, while analysts were busy assessing where this latest skirmish will eventually leave us, why it erupted in the first place, and how much it both resembles and differs from the last major battle between these foes – Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-2009.
The antebellum South
That Israeli operation some four years ago started with equal fury, as the IDF suddenly launched dozens of air strikes throughout the Strip on unsuspecting Hamas targets. Yet the early death toll quickly reached into hundreds of Palestinians killed, reducing the room Israel had to maneuver before having to stop the offensive. As casualties mounted on both sides and international pressure for a truce increased, the IDF sent in ground forces to seize control of rocket-launching pads in northeast Gaza and advance to the outskirts of Gaza City.
Holding this patch of ground as a bargaining chip gave Israel greater leverage in cease-fire talks, which ended with Hamas badly bloodied and promising to hold their fire. This gave the south of Israel some measure of quiet. But Israel was also placed in the docket of world opinion, as the United Nations commissioned the Goldstone panel to come assess whether “war crimes” had been committed by both sides – an exercise in moral equivalency which left a bad taste in the mouths of most Israelis.
Since then, the regional equation has shifted, presenting both Israel and Hamas with new advantages but also steep new challenges.Iron Dome to the rescue
The most positive development for Israel is that several batteries of the Iron Dome anti-missile shield have been deployed in the South since 2009 and they have performed incredibly well in bringing down short-range rockets and mortars. The system is designed to protect a limited footprint of several square miles and targets only those rockets which it projects will land inside populated cities. Of the more than 1,000 rockets Hamas had fired in the first week of fighting, Iron Dome intercepted over 350 headed for cities like Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba – scoring a success rate of nearly 90 percent of the rockets targeted.
When Tel Aviv came under attack, a fifth Iron Dome battery was quickly deployed and immediately began shooting down the longer-range Fajr-5 rockets that Hamas was now using to strike fear in Israel’s commercial and cultural hub.
Due to this new rocket shield, Israel has been able to keep its own casualty count low, with only one soldier and four civilian dead reported so far, plus several hundred others treated for wounds or shock all across the Negev.
Israel also tried to keep the Palestinian casualty count down as well, with many air strikes called off when civilians were detected in the area of a terror target. The IDF also dropped leaflets, made cell phone calls and pirated local Arabic radio stations to warn Gazans to stay away from Hamas figures and facilities. All this while honing in on the leadership and symbols of Hamas and other Islamist terror militias in Gaza; just hours after defiant Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh hosted a solidarity visit by Egypt’s prime minister at his offices in Gaza City, the building lay in ruins from Israeli missile strikes.Testing brotherly ties
Meanwhile, Hamas had clearly calculated that the Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt this year could be exploited to their advantage in another round of fighting with Israel – especially given that Hamas considers itself the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood.
In the time since Operation Cast Lead, the Arab Spring has transformed the region, with the political upheavals still on-going. Both the election of Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt and the Sunni rebellion against the minority Assad regime in Syria presented Hamas with a dilemma and an opportunity.
Rather than stand with Bashar Assad, Hamas leader abroad Khaled Mashaal abandoned his office in Damascus and moved to friendly Qatar, while also seeking a stronger alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This stepping away from the Iran axis outraged the ruling clerics in Tehran, who have been the main Hamas patron over the past decade, supplying them with longer range rockets and other improved weaponry. Yet it appears that Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader inside Gaza, has been trying to preserve ties with Iran, particularly to keep the transfer of advanced arms flowing his way.
In that regard it may turn out that the first shot of this latest Israel-Hamas war was actually fired in October, when a mysterious air raid destroyed a suspected Iranian weapons factory in Khartoum making arms for Hamas in Gaza.
Thus the expanded array of weapons from Iran and the potential for strong Egyptian backing seems to have swayed Hamas into confronting Israel, after largely staying on the sidelines since Cast Lead. In addition, Hamas was being goaded to rejoin the “armed struggle” by other radical Islamist militias in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several al-Qaida affiliates operating in Gaza and Sinai.
So when Hamas began brazenly claiming credit for recent rocket barrages and then carried out the string of cross-border attacks early last month, Israeli leaders realized the deterrent effect created by Operation Cast Lead had worn thin and a new operation needed to be launched.
For its part, Egypt indeed supported Hamas by denouncing the “Israeli aggression,” pulling its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and sending senior officials to Gaza to make sympathy calls. But Cairo also refused to rush troops into the Sinai to threaten Israel, as Hamas may have hoped. Instead, Morsi spearheaded Arab efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between the warring sides, coaxed along by the United States and European Union.
Stuck on the border
Fearing a wider conflict that would fray US relations with traditional allies Egypt and Turkey, the Obama administration stepped up its own diplomatic activity as well, dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region to press for a truce. Fresh off his recent re-election, President Barack Obama solidly backed Israel’s right to defend its citizens and blamed the escalation on Hamas rocket fire. After all, he visited Sderot himself in 2008 and saw firsthand the constant threat which the locals there must endure.
But some reports also suggest Obama blocked Netanyahu from launching a ground invasion into Gaza, which may explain why thousands of Israeli troops were left sitting idle along the border as both rockets and rumors of a cease-fire swirl overhead.
Netanyahu is facing new elections himself in January, and has taken huge risks in ordering the IDF campaign. But polls suggest the Israeli public is overwhelmingly behind the air operations to end the unbearable Hamas rocket threat, although the prospects of a Gaza incursion enjoyed less support. The Iron Dome batteries have kept casualties low and given Israeli leaders some leeway on whether to send in the troops. Plus, it is clear that Netanyahu is not interested in starting out Obama’s second term with a major spat between them.
Barring a decision to enter Gaza come what may, this has left the Netanyahu government basically fending for the best cease-fire terms it can get in order to justify the call-up of reserves. The stated goal of Operation Pillar of Cloud was to end the rocket threat over southern Israel and restore deterrence along the Gaza border. Israeli leaders know they cannot wipe out Hamas and its warped ideology, but they will seek to deprive it of its lifeline of weaponry.
Yet to accomplish this Israel will likely have to bank on Egyptian enforcement of the truce terms in Sinai, where Cairo is already engaged in a nasty war with al-Qaida elements among the fiercely independent Bedouin tribes. So far, the Morsi government has shown a practical approach to regional affairs, but pressure is building within the Muslim Brotherhood ranks to join the “armed struggle” against Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas is boasting that its rockets can now reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and will do all it can to protect its current arsenal of Fajr-5 rockets and keep the supply line open for more weapons. Thus, Hamas is demanding that Israel and Egypt lift their blockades on the Gaza Strip while also pressing for international guarantees that Israel will halt all military strikes going forward, including targeted assassinations.
Israel has countered by insisting it reserves the right to respond to renewed rocket attacks and any impending terror plots it uncovers.
As truce talks unfold and absent any major surprises, it appears Israel will come out of this latest round of fighting knowing that while Hamas does possess longer range rockets, the Iron Dome system has shown that it is more than a match for them.
Yet the growing rocket threat from Gaza, together with the 50,000 rockets in Hizbullah hands in Lebanon, will continue to hang over Israel’s civilian heartland for years to come. In addition, the Arab world will likely continue its slide towards Islamic radicalism, further fueling the jihad against Israel. All the while, the Iranian nuclear threat looms ominously on the horizon.
And if that is not enough, Israel can also expect another biased Goldstone inquiry to arrive soon in order to condemn Israel for simply wanting to live in peace and safety.
Postscript on latest Gaza warAs we go to press, a truce was announced overnight after eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Brokered by Egypt and the US, the deal left critical ceasefire terms still to be worked out, and sporadic rocket fire continues from Gaza. But Prime Minister Netanyahu has told the Israeli public he wants to give the truce a chance to work so they can return to a “normal routine.” That routine includes an election in eight weeks time in which he must convince voters that the just-completed operation was a success and did not get called off too early, as many Israelis sense.
Meanwhile, Hamas is claiming victory even amid the rubble of its destroyed government offices in Gaza.
The Islamist terror militia came close to drawing Egypt and Turkey into the fray, but it was still firing too many Iranian supplied rockets. Next time, if it fully shifts its allegiance to Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood, the outcome could be different. And no doubt there will be a next time.
Iron Dome missile defense system – facts and figures
Here are some details on the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, which cost around $50 million apiece:
• Iron Dome was developed by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., to counter rocket fire from Lebanon that hit Israeli towns during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas Islamists took control in 2007.
• Each truck-towed unit fires radarguided missiles to blow up shortrange rockets in mid-air, notably of the Russian Katyusha type, as well as mortar bombs. It successfully shot down multiple rockets simultaneously for the first time in tests during July 2010, and was first deployed near Gaza in March 2011. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said that 10 to 15 batteries would be needed to provide full, if not hermetic, coverage of all Israel.
• An army spokeswoman said that in the first three days of the recent Israeli offensive against militants in the Gaza Strip, the Iron Dome intercepted at least 222 incoming rockets – a 90 percent success rate.
• The system uses a variant of the missile detector on warplanes to spot ground-to-ground rocket and mortar launches. A quick calibration lets it determine whether the missile is on course to hit a populated area, and ignore it if it is not. The manufacturer says the Iron Dome also works out the safest spot to destroy the incoming missile.
• The Iron Dome is billed as providing city-sized coverage against rockets with ranges of between 5 and 70 km.
• The battery’s radar was developed in Israel by Elta. The system which calculates the aim of each interceptor is from Israeli software firm Prest Systems. Weapons fired by Iron Dome include the Tamir missile.