The costs of a Gaza-Israel rocket war

A rocket war with Gaza would cost Israel billions of dollars but relatively few civilian lives.

Palestinians look out of their house that was damaged in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City November 13, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
Palestinians look out of their house that was damaged in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City November 13, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
The Israel-Gaza conflict flared-up abruptly this month when Gaza militants fired some 460 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. Since then, residents of southern Israel have protested the subsequent unlikely-to-last ceasefire and politicians have competed to sound the most warlike. But before their tough talk leads to a war, Israeli leaders should consider the likely costs.
Israelis living near Gaza are understandably fed up. They’d been enjoying three years of relative calm, with only 122 rockets and shells fired from there throughout 2015-2017.
But in March incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza began igniting Israeli farms and forests. Those were joined in May by a resumption of serious periodic rocket fire.
The ensuing months brought more rockets and shells, with November’s barrage bringing the year-to-date count to more than 1,124. The fire hasn’t been that heavy since Operation Protective Edge, which saw some 4,692 such projectiles launched at Israel.
Since that operation ended in 2014, Gaza’s militants have reportedly stockpiled some 20,000 rockets and shells. If they were ever to unleash that arsenal, the resulting harm could be substantial, depending on Israel’s response.
If the country simply endured the fire without retaliating, the rocket attacks might last five months. About 80% would either misfire or land in open fields. Of the 20% headed for population centers, more than four-fifths could be intercepted by Iron Dome.
The remaining projectiles might inflict about 20 civilian deaths and 470 injuries. Property damage, interceptor ammunition, and lost economic output could cost Israel around $6.3 billion, or 2% of its gross domestic product.
That’s be a tough pill to quietly swallow, so a more realistic scenario would see Israel retaliating with air strikes, as it did this month. IDF bombs might destroy 40% of the rockets on the ground. That could cut the conflict’s duration to three months and Israel’s casualties to perhaps a dozen deaths and 280 injuries. (And devastate Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure.)
But the economic price would remain similar. Decreased civilian losses would be offset by increased military expenses, and while bombing would shorten the war, it likely wouldn’t slow the rocket fire. Israel’s offensives in 2008, 2012, and 2014 all opened with rocket-destroying air strikes, but Gaza militants maintained their daily fire despite them.
That’s one reason ground assaults would likely follow. Rocket fire would decline as soldiers overran the launchers, as they did in 2008 and 2014. Ground assaults would also allow Israel, wisely or not, to cripple Hamas. But IDF casualties and expenses would soar, as would Gaza’s collateral damage.
The estimates above are very rough but make several points.
First, barring surprises, Israel’s civilian deaths would be relatively low (IDF casualties could be much higher.) Even four rocket fatalities per month would of course be personally tragic and politically explosive, but traffic accidents kill Israelis at six times that rate. It’s not that Gaza’s missiles are harmless; each is potentially deadly. But Israel’s Iron Dome batteries have become effective interceptors, and upgraded warning systems and shelters mean fewer casualties occur when rockets get through.
Consequently, only one projectile in 300 killed during the 2012 operation, and only one in 950 during hostilities in 2014.
Second, the IDF could eliminate many rockets and militants, but only modestly reduce Israel’s civilian losses. For example, destroying 3,000 rockets in 2014 likely prevented only about 90 casualties. Furthermore, the collateral damage would create diplomatic trouble. Media coverage would contrast low Israeli losses against high Gazan ones. It’d be difficult to get international support for any extended IDF operation.
Third, war would be expensive. The rockets’ direct physical damage might total some $170 million, but indirect costs would be much larger. Israel’s economy lost about $20 million per day during the 2014 conflict. Military expenditures cost another $45 million daily. Put another way, each rocket and shell Gaza fired during 2014’s operation caused only $8,400 of direct damage but triggered $630,000 in military expenses and economic losses.
So, would a Gaza war be worth its price in blood and cash, relative to the alternatives? Hopefully Israeli leaders are giving that question at least as much attention as they do to their political maneuvering. In the meantime, the latest ceasefire might enable Egyptian mediators to negotiate an extended truce between the two sides. Or see the US government finally unveil its much-rumored but never-seen peace plan. But given the short life expectancy of Israel-Gaza ceasefires, it seems only a matter of time until the rockets and bombs start falling again.
The writer is an associate professor at Brock University. His research has examined the effectiveness of rocket attacks and defenses in Israel.