Phantom Rockets from Gaza: Is Israel on the Verge of War?

At 3:39 a.m on October 17, sirens blared in the streets of Be’er Sheva, Southern Israel’s largest city. Miri Tamano grabbed her three children and rushed into her bomb shelter. Moments later, a Grad rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck Tamano’s house with its 44 lb warhead. That same night, a second rocket was launched at Tel Aviv and impacted near the city of Bat Yam with an even larger payload. These rocket attacks constitute a major escalation in Israel’s conflict with the Gaza Strip and its governing terrorist organization, Hamas. However, it remains a mystery who fired these rockets. With tensions rising in Israel and politicians calling for war, the ultimate question is who fired these unclaimed ‘phantom’ rockets?

To understand who fired these rockets, we need to look at the past six months in Gaza, where tensions have been flaring. On March 30, weekly protests organized by Hamas began on the Gaza border. While these protests, termed the ‘March of Return’, are hailed by Western media outlets as a shift away from violence, the March of Return is anything but peaceful protest. In a May 13 interview with Al-Jazeera TV, co-founder of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Zahhars, stated, “when you have weapons that are being wielded by men who were able to prevent the strongest army in the region from entering the Gaza Strip for 51 days and were able to capture or kill soldiers of that army – is this really ‘peaceful resistance’? This is not peaceful resistance. Has the option of armed struggle diminished? No. On the contrary, it is growing and developing. That’s clear. So when we talk about ‘peaceful resistance,’ we are deceiving the public. This is a peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies, and enjoying tremendous popular support.” As a result of these protests, Israel faces a significant security threat to it’s border regions. On October 12 alone, 20 armed terrorists broke through the Gaza fence into Israel, threatening both Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Concurrent with the March of Return, Gazans began a new tactic, arson terror. Since March 30, over 800 kites and balloons armed with incendiary material have been sent over the Gaza border. These kites and balloons have burned 10,000 acres, wiped out three million dollars worth of cropland, and burned half of the forests in Southern Israel. Since the start of October, there has been a steady increase in the number balloons sent and a dangerous shift from arming the balloons with incendiary material to explosive devices. Last week alone, three balloons armed with explosive devices landed in the streets of Jerusalem.

Facing both humanitarian crisis as well as Israeli retaliation against its arson and border terror, Hamas has begun negotiations with Israel, facilitated by Egypt. Though Egypt has brokered several short term cease fires in recent months, violence quickly broke out again in Gaza each time. Consequently, Egypt has been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and armed factions in Gaza. Leading these efforts is Abbas Kamel, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Force. With negotiations between Israel and Hamas progressing in Cairo, Kamal was scheduled to visit the region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian Leaders. These meetings were scheduled for October 17, the day of the pre-dawn rocket attack on Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv. Faced with renewed violence from the Gaza Strip, Kamal cancelled these scheduled negotiations. Further, Al Jazeera reported that the Egyption negotiating team in Gaza, including senior Egyptian Intelligence Chief Ahmed Abdelkhaliq, fled Gaza that evening. It may not be a coincidence that that the rocket fire happened hours before key peace negotiations. If a militant group wanted to derail the peace efforts between Hamas and Israel, there would be a strong motive to launch a rocket attack that morning.

Did Hamas fire the rockets? According to a joint statement released by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two most powerful political and military entities in the Gaza Strip, neither is responsible for the rocket fire. In an interview with AP, Hamas official Bassem Naim condemned the rocket attack and attempt to sabotage Egyptian efforts to broker a long-term truce. Hamas has taken these denials a step further and claims to be investigating the incident. Naim states that “there are security service investigations in Gaza to uncover who is behind the rocket fire and there will be harsh measures against those responsible.” Israeli officials, however, assert that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the only groups armed with rockets capable of reaching Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are known to use 122mm Grad rockets of Iranian or Chinese origin with a range of over 40 km.

Though Hamas denies the attacks and claims to be taking a hard line against the culprits, we see conflicting actions from the terror group. Since the October 17 attack, Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade has released two videos threatening war with Israel. The first video shows Hamas militants readying rockets for launch and states, “we recommend that you read us correctly—mistakes will not make things better.” The second reads, “with your aggressiveness, you’ll never leave the bomb shelters.” These statements do not demonstrate Hamas’ desire to deescalate the situation; they point to Hamas’ desire for war. Hamas’ actions on the ground, however, tell a different story. At the weekly March of Return protest following the rocket attack, only 10,000 Palestinians participated and only three breached the border fence. This compares to 15,000 protesters and 20 inflitations the prior week. A final clue to the rocket origin is the evacuation of Hamas’ posts. Prior to launching a volley of rockets, Hamas protocol dictates that their facilities and posts be evacuated in order to avoid the expected Israeli retaliation. The Times of Israel reports that Hamas members evacuated their posts and that Hamas leadership has gone into hiding since the rocket attack. In sum, it is highly inconclusive whether Hamas is responsible for the rockets. Though Hamas and Islamic Jihad deny responsibility and swear punishment for those responsible, they are the only groups with the technical capability of firing the rockets. Though Hamas released two videos threatening war with Israel and evacuated their posts, they have moderated their violence on the border.

If it is, in fact, that case that Hamas did not fire the rockets, then who did? On the morning of October 17, just hours after the rocket attack, Israeli Defense Force lookouts spotted a group of Gazans preparing to launch another rocket at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Video released by the IDF shows the militants loading a rocket into the launcher and moments later an Israeli airstrike neutralizing the launch site, killing one of the militants. Gaza Health officials identified the militant as Naji al-Za’aneen, a member of the Mujahideen Brigades, a military group that splintered off of the Hamas rival, Fatah. While the Mujahideen Brigades may have been attempting to carry out a copycat attack on the closer target of Ashkelon, it is possible that this minor Gaza faction was responsible for the rocket attack. An alternative theory weighed by the Israeli Security Cabinet and covered by Palestinian media outlets attributes the October 17 rocket attack to a lightning strike. Video posted on Twitter by a freelance Palestinian journalist shows a bolt of lightning hitting the Gaza launch site six seconds before the rockets were fired. According to Tal Inbad, an expert in rocketry at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, a lighting strike could have triggered the electronic launch mechanisms used by terror groups in Gaza. Under this theory, Hamas or Islamic Jihad had armed Grad rockets aimed at Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva in case of an outbreak of violence with Israel. The lightning strike could have triggered the launch of the rockets without the orders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

In response to the October 17 attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a security assessment with the Israeli forces tasked with defending the Gaza border, the IDF’s 143rd “Fire Fox” Division. Following this assessment, the Israeli Air Force conducted twenty airstrikes on the Gaza strip. These strikes targeted Hamas weapons manufacturing facilities, headquarters, posts and underground infrastructure, including a Hamas ‘terror tunnel.’ Further, the IDF deployed an additional Iron Dome missile defense battery to Be’er Sheva.

Tensions came to a climax October 18, as Israel’s security cabinet met for five and a half hours to discuss Israel’s long-term response to the rocket attack. During the meeting, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a member of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party, presented a plan for a strong response to the attack and military intervention in Gaza. Netanyahu, however, warned against preemptive action and suggested intervention only if Hamas escalates the situation. In preparation for this possibility, Israel began the movement of tanks to the Gaza border. Within a day of the Security Cabinet meeting, over 60 tanks had been deployed to the Gaza border.

Inside Israel’s governing coalition, there remains a strong push for war, exemplified by Liberman’s speech to the Israeli Knesset. “Wars are only conducted when there is no choice, and now there is no choice,” Liberman stated. However, according to statements leaked to Yediot Ahronot, the majority sentiment within the Security Cabinet is that the lightning strike was responsible for the rocket attack, not Hamas. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the security cabinet, stated in an interview with Israel Radio, “I won’t discuss Security Cabinet meetings and I don’t know which ministers are chatting with journalists, but I can say that as far as we know, Hamas did not intend to fire those rockets.” There is significant doubt, however, within the Israeli populace about the validity of this claim and recent polling conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 56% of Jewish Israelis are in favor of a stronger Gaza response.

Whether a lightning strike, Hamas operative, or the Mujahideen Brigade fired the rockets is irrelevant to long-term peace. October 17’s attack demonstrates that Hamas has rockets armed and aimed at major Israeli population centers. As the governing entity in Gaza, Hamas must take responsibility for all rockets exiting their territory. Their denials do little to further peace when they simultaneously call for war with Israel. Yet, Israel made the right choice to avoid intervention. The pattern of Hamas rocket volley, Israeli retaliation, and Egyptian brokered ceasefire has repeated over and over for the past six months. This situation is unacceptable for both Israelis and Palestinians. War, however, will do little to solve the situation. After Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas quickly resumed violence. The only long-term impact was thousands of civilian deaths and humanitarian crisis. Negotiating a long-term peace deal between Hamas and Israel is the only way to create lasting peace in Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel must be prepared for war and the deployment of extra Iron Dome batteries and tanks to the border is a critical step. The Israeli Security Cabinet should listen to Netanyahu: push for peace and prepare for war.

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