Rockets were threats, not toys

Gaza militants launched about 4,562 rockets at Israel during the conflict, along with a smaller number of mortar shells.

Damage to an Ashkelon home hit by a rocket.  (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Damage to an Ashkelon home hit by a rocket.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Many observers have criticized Israel’s recent military operations in the Gaza Strip for being “excessive” or “disproportionate” relative to the country’s own casualties. A United Nations panel is investigating, and the issue might eventually reach the International Criminal Court. Those critics seem to be ignoring the far greater casualties that would have occurred if Israel had not acted to prevent them.
Gaza militants launched about 4,562 rockets at Israel during the conflict, along with a smaller number of mortar shells. Despite its size, this barrage “only” killed seven civilians, and wounded 126 more. Given that relatively low toll, some have downplayed the threat of weapons employed by Hamas. A British politician called them “toy rockets,” and an American analyst described them as little more than “bottle rockets.” But the rockets were lethal enough; altogether they carried an estimated 72 tons of explosives.
Why so few casualties? First, since 2005 Israel has spent over a billion shekels on civil defense. Bus stops in the south are built from concrete, not glass. Many new homes have a reinforced room where residents can hide. Siren and cellphone alerts give civilians a few seconds to sprint for cover. Those measures rarely make the international news, but research suggests they prevent most potential casualties. One study estimates fatalities would be over three times higher without these measures.
The Iron Dome batteries provided further protection. Reports from the IDF indicate they shot down 83 percent of the rockets that were headed for population centers. Some analysts think the true rate was much lower, however. Although the interceptor missiles clearly were exploding in the sky, they may not always have disabled the rocket warheads. Let’s suppose the interceptors were only half as good as claimed; casualties still would have been 69% higher without them.
Those interceptions were pricey. The US government is providing NIS 800 million ($225 million) to resupply the batteries, or about NIS 1.4m. per interception. That’s not including the billions spent to develop the technology and construct the batteries.
The country also avoided casualties by destroying rockets on the ground in Gaza. Aircraft and artillery attacked 1,100 rockets in the first phase of Operation Protective Edge. The ground assault eliminated 1,900 more, including ones hidden in tunnels or UN schools. If launched, those 3,000 rockets could have inflicted 66% more casualties.
The preemptions were costly, too. The military spent about NIS 9 billion, its casualties were high, and Palestinian casualties were higher. The Hamas rockets were weak in one sense. Compared to the previous conflict in 2012, their accuracy was lower. Only 21% headed toward Israeli towns this time, versus 32% in 2012. Otherwise, civilian casualties could have been 54% higher.
Their accuracy might have dropped due to them being fired farther into the country. They hit fewer people, but disrupted more businesses. One estimate puts the country’s economic loss due to decreased tourism, reduced productivity, etc., at NIS 4.5b. That’s almost NIS 1m. per rocket fired.
Now consider the alternative. What if Israel had prepared no civil defenses, no interceptors, no preemptive strikes, and faced more accurate fire? Multiplication of those factors shows its civilian casualties would have been about 13 times higher. That’s around 1,729 dead or wounded instead of 133 – hardly “toy rocket” results.
Maybe not all of Israel’s actions were justified. But if the UN, ICC, or anyone else wants to argue that point, they need to look beyond the 133 actual casualties. They must also consider the 1,596 casualties that would have occurred without the country’s extensive and expensive efforts.
Of course, the best means of preventing casualties is a lasting diplomatic agreement. But attaining peace in the Middle East is not rocket science – it’s far more complex than that.
The author is an associate professor at Brock University in Canada. Last winter he was the Fulbright visiting research chair in war and peace studies at Norwich University in the USA.