Analysis: The price of stopping Kassams

The distance between success and tragedy in Beit Hanun was 600 meters.

swastika star of david (photo credit: AP)
swastika star of david
(photo credit: AP)
The report that Maj.-Gen Meir Klifi has been ordered to report before the end of the week on the Beit Hanun tragedy can already be summarized in two words - the second is "happens," the first is unprintable in a reputable paper. Since the report will be, initially at least, written in Hebrew, the general could make do instead with the old IDF saying, "Zeh o tzalash o tarash" - it's either citation or demotion. In this case, the distance between the two was a mere 600 meters, not a near-miss perhaps, but the kind of miss that is going to happen, due to human error, on an average of at least one in every few hundred artillery shells. Surgical attacks are a nifty term that generals love using but even surgeons have botched operations. None of this, of course, is very useful for government spokesmen on CNN, when pictures of 20 corpses, half of them children, are running live on the split-screen. Both the efficiency and morality of using "preventative" artillery fire against Kassam missile launchers have been debated at length over the last few years in military forums, cabinet meetings, Supreme Court rooms and the media. Orders have been revised countless times, safety margins gone up and down, firing ordered to be stopped and renewed again but the basic facts haven't changed. Artillery is still the quickest and cheapest method to harass the Kassam teams and minimize their threat. The safest also - safest for IDF soldiers, that is. Many blame the government and the IDF for failing to eradicate the Kassam threat for over six years. Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal has become a national figure through his daily interviews attacking the government's impotence against these primitive weapons. In the past he called for Beit Hanun to "be wiped off the map" in order to stop the launchings. Lately he's changed tone slightly and this week he said on Army Radio, "as far as I care, they can build another Beit Hanun, I just want the Kassams to stop." The plight of the citizens of Sderot and other towns bordering the Gaza Strip is real and calls for more comprehensive treatment. However, since wiping out the entire Palestinian population of Gaza or occupying the entire Strip again were never options, then some facts are unavoidable. As long as the Palestinian organizations want to fire makeshift rockets from the Strip, they're going to succeed, at least partially. But those who are so quick to blame the army and its political leadership are ignoring the real situation. The Kassam teams are constantly being hunted down, by all the military and intelligence elements at Israel's disposal. Even in the unhealthy Gaza Strip, there is no job with a lower life-expectancy than a member of a Kassam team. Hundreds have already been killed by artillery shellings, manned and unmanned air-strikes, Merkava tank cannons and from ambush by ground forces. And that's not counting dozens more killed by the rockets exploding prematurely on the launching pad or in storage. The IDF can't prevent rockets being fired in almost random directions from any point in the Strip, but they have managed to make it virtually impossible for the Palestinians to take real aim. Kassams, like the Hizbullah's Katyushas, are what the IDF calls "statistical weapons." One in a thousand might eventually hit a schoolyard during recess; meanwhile we're decreasing the odds of that happening. But the odds also work in the other direction and with relatively inaccurate artillery or tank cannon fire, the chances of a tragic mistake are much higher. Attack helicopters, fighter jets and UAVs all have a much better track record, but it's logistically impossible to cover the entire strip from the air at all hours. It is also risky. At some stage, the Palestinians are going to try to shoot an Apache down. And besides, even the finest pilots in the world can bomb the wrong targets, as we saw in Kafr Kanna. Using ground troops minimizes the chance of civilian casualties even further, but inserting a special operations team into the Strip takes time, puts the soldiers lives at risk - especially in built-up areas - and they can cover only a limited sector. Kassams can be launched from virtually anywhere and the Palestinians aren't that picky about firing from schools and homes. Artillery batteries on a 24-hour alert, well within Israeli territory, are still the fastest and safest rapid-reaction tactic available and the 155 millimeter shells are much cheaper than the UAV that crashed in the Negev this week. There are no easy solutions. Left-wingers will say that only a diplomatic solution can do the trick and the rightists favor reoccupying broad swathes of the Strip, if not all of it. Both options are obviously simple and straightforward when seen from the opposition benches. Minimizing the Kassam threat to Israeli citizens is possible only at the price of a greater risk of Palestinian civilian casualties. Diplomatic and political considerations will naturally tie the IDF's hands over the next few days until the uproar dies down and then gradually the usual methods will come back into use. If a Kassam actually hits a vulnerable target or the Palestinians succeed in carrying out their threats of renewed suicide attacks in Israel's cities, the pendulum will swing back almost immediately.