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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The latest rocket attacks and Israel’s options

Executive Summary

  • No major attack such as the one carried out on Ashkelon would have taken place without at least the consent of Hamas rulers. These attacks coincide with and support the strategic agenda laid down by the Hamas leadership. It is unclear how deliberate the escalation of the Ashkelon attack was, as by nature there is ‘luck’ involved in rockets striking large-scale targets. At the same time, it is clear that there is no lack of intent involved. 
  • Israel has a number of options to choose from in responding to the recent escalation in attacks. It would prefer not to undertake a large-scale ground invasion, favouring instead a continuation of limited but intense measures including highly effective targeted assassinations. However, if the situation escalates to an increasingly intolerable level, Israel may be compelled to undertake a large-scale invasion after President Bush’s departure. The severity of this situation is reflected in the fact that Israel may need to do this even though an exit strategy does not exist at present. Significantly, there is a difference in tone now amongst Israeli decision-makers, indicating that while undesirable, all options are now on the table.
  • The preferred option currently appears to be a diplomatic one – specifically a viable ceasefire – but achieving this is a complicated matter in which both sides’ conditions are high and potentially intractable, whether by design or intent. Regardless, Israel has and is still pursuing the diplomatic route and does not want to pursue a military strategy until all diplomatic options have been exhausted. At the same time it reluctantly accepts that it may have to pursue a military option

Introduction and background

On 14 May 2008, a 122mm Grad-Katyusha rocket hit a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. The rocket struck at one of the mall’s top floors, where a medical centre is located, and caused the building’s ceiling to collapse. From the explosion and the subsequent damage, some 34 people were physically injured, four seriously. Two of the severely hurt are a 24-year-old woman and her two-year-old daughter, who were diagnosed with serious head injuries.

Islamic Jihad, the PFLP and the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, terror organisations operating in the Gaza Strip under Hamas rule, have all claimed responsibility for the attack.

This attack comes in the wake of a series of attacks in southern Israel, in which two Israelis were killed in an ongoing barrage of Qassam rockets and mortar shells. On 9 May, Jimmy Kedoshim was killed near his house in Kibbutz Kefar Aza, and on 5 May, 70-year-old Shuli Katz was killed in a nearby village. This chain of events again emphasised the conditions under which Israel’s southern residents have been living for the past seven years. The consequences of the attacks have also focused the attention on Israel’s possible actions and the effect the current situation may have on broader regional processes.

The following briefing will present an analysis of the latest events and a strategic assessment of the possible scenarios they may lead to.

The rocket threat on southern Israel: a tactical overview

In the past seven years, Palestinian terror organisations have focused their operations in the Gaza Strip on developing their ballistic arsenal and activating it against Israeli communities in the western Negev region, placing over 250,000 Israeli civilians under daily threat. Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the terror groups have stepped up their efforts and have taken advantage of Israel’s absence to enlarge their ballistic stock and initiate attacks more frequently. Over 4,000 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel by Palestinian terror organisations since disengagement.

Initially, the various organisations made use of the locally-manufactured Qassam rockets that can reach a range of up to ten kilometres and carry a warhead of up to 7kg. Additionally, Hamas and other groups fired Iranian-supplied mortar shells in growing rates, taking advantage of the relative mobility of the launchers, which reduces the risk of detection.

Since the beginning of the year, Hamas and other organisations have begun firing the 122mm calibre Grad-Katyusha rocket, able to reach a range of 22km and carrying a warhead of 18kg. Its effectiveness was proven on 14 May when it was able to penetrate the concrete walls of the shopping centre and cause the collapse of other parts of the building. The rockets fired were apparently smuggled into Gaza from Iran via Egypt through tunnels and the breached Rafah border fence. It is assessed that Palestinian terror groups in Gaza possess up to 200 such rockets. The events on 14 May signal that these organisations will not hesitate to use this arsenal to inflict large-scale damage and a maximum number of Israeli casualties.

Strategic assessment: terror group aims and their possible outcomes

The Ashkelon attack and the recent escalation raise three related questions: what are the Palestinian terror organisations’ aims? How will these events affect wider regional processes currently taking place? And what are Israel’s options in response to the latest events?

1. Terror group objectives

It is important to stress that all Palestinian terror organisations operating in the Gaza Strip are under the ultimate rule of Hamas. Subsequently, no major attack such as the one carried out on 14 May would have taken place without at least the consent of Hamas rulers. When assessing the objectives of recent attacks, one must note that such attacks coincide with and support the strategic agenda laid down by the Hamas leadership. It is unclear how deliberate the escalation of the Ashkelon attack was, as by nature there is ‘luck’ involved in rockets striking large-scale targets. At the same time, it is clear that there is no lack of intent involved.

Despite the announcement from a spokesperson for the Popular Resistance Committees that the attacks were intended to mark the 60th anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1948 war, two more recent developments provide the strategic backdrop for the latest round of Palestinian violence:

a) The international conference currently being held in Jerusalem

With dozens of heads of state currently in Israel to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, the Ashkelon attack and the ones preceding it are an attempt to present a high-profile reminder that no substantial activity in the region can overlook Hamas’s rule in Gaza. In the past, Hamas has made use of terror in order to place itself at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, overshadowing the attempts of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership headed by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to persistently follow the negotiations track with Israel. Hamas uses these tactics both to enhance its standings in the domestic Palestinian scene, to raise its profile in the eyes of its Iranian supporters and to place itself as a highly influential player in the region. Hamas’s actions prove that it will carry out such attacks even when they ultimately lead to greater suffering of the civilian Palestinian population of Gaza.

The timing of this week’s escalation is therefore more than an attempt to spoil the celebrations in Jerusalem. Hamas uses violence to enhance its strategic influence, proving time and again that it is willing to take severe measures to achieve this goal. The attacks are also an attempt to signal to President George W. Bush, who is currently visiting Israel and the region, that his administration’s policy to sideline Hamas at all cost has not proved successful. Given the evidence strongly indicating that the rockets used in the attack on Ashkelon were supplied by Iran, this is also stark reminder of Tehran’s attempts to extend its strategic reach through Hamas’s Gaza rule.

b) The Egyptian attempts to broker a Gaza ceasefire

In the face of Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, this week’s escalation suggests that Hamas will not agree to compromise on the conditions it laid down to the Egyptian mediators. Hamas is signalling that it will not agree to any demands that go beyond a temporary cessation of violence between the sides in the Gaza Strip and an easing on restrictions currently placed on the border crossings into the strip. Hamas also desires the release of several hundred prisoners, some of whom are the most violent and politically explosive for Israel, in exchange for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. This week, with the visit of Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, it became clear just how integral the release of Shalit is for Israel in coming to an agreement, thus affirming how difficult these negotiations are.

Hamas wishes to reach a ceasefire only on its own terms and has clarified through the latest attacks that the ceasefire talks do not mark any change in the organisation’s fundamental stance. To reiterate this position, senior Hamas member Mahmoud Al-Zahar stated on 14 May at a Gaza rally: “Now more than ever I tell you – we will never recognise Israel… We will form the Palestinian state on all of Palestine’s territories.”

2. Israel’s options: from the negotiation table to military strikes

Israel has a number of options to choose from in responding to the recent escalation in attacks. It would prefer not to undertake a large-scale ground invasion, favouring instead a continuation of limited but intense measures including highly effective targeted assassinations. However, if the situation escalates to an increasingly intolerable level, Israel may be compelled to undertake a large-scale invasion after President Bush’s departure. The severity of this situation is reflected in the fact that Israel may need to do this even though an exit strategy does not exist at present. Significantly, there is a difference in tone now amongst Israeli decision-makers, indicating that while undesirable, all options are now on the table.

The preferred option currently appears to be a diplomatic one – specifically a viable ceasefire – but achieving this is a complicated matter in which both sides’ conditions are high and potentially intractable, whether by design or intent. Regardless, Israel has and is still pursuing the diplomatic route and does not want to pursue a military strategy until all diplomatic options have been exhausted. At the same time it reluctantly accepts that it may have to pursue a military option.

For the moment, Israel’s leadership is unlikely to play into the hands of Hamas and divert attention from the major international expression of support currently taking place in Jerusalem. Hamas is aware that Israel will avoid a large-scale operation during President Bush’s visit and has taken advantage of this. The organisation understands that under different circumstances, an attack like the one in Ashkelon would lead to a substantial Israeli reaction against their infrastructure in Gaza.

It is important to remember that Israel is reluctant to be dragged into military activity that may lead to large numbers of casualties on both sides and may not fully halt the terrorists’ ability to continue the rocket fire against Israel.

One of the options Israel may take would be to expand its operations against terror activities in Gaza, mostly in regions currently used as rocket launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip. These operations may be carried out by brigade-size forces accompanied by the Air Force, armoured vehicles and military engineering forces, numbering at least several thousand troops. Ultimately, these are not long-lasting actions and are usually concluded within 24-72 hours.

Israel is not limited solely to military options. It is very likely that Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement will continue, and Hamas officials have already announced that a delegation of it representatives will travel to Egypt for talks over the ceasefire. As long as Egypt continues its efforts to mediate between the sides, Israel will offer its cooperation, with the obvious commitment that any such agreement must deal with the weapons smuggling into the strip and encompass all the factions that operate under Hamas rule.

Conclusion

The recent escalation has provided a reminder of the volatile situation in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel. At a time when international attention is focused on Israel on its 60th anniversary, these events underline the threat that is still part of daily life for many Israelis. From a regional perspective, this escalation reiterates the threat that terror, and ballistic terror in particular, poses to the advancement of peace in the region.

From a strategic point of view, the attacks do not change the delicate standoff between Israel and the Palestinian terror organisations operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. For the Palestinians, Hamas continues to present an uncompromising stance that uses terror as an instrument to further its influence on regional events. Using Iranian weaponry, Hamas is able to signal that it is a powerful actor in the region and that it will use all means to remain so.

Israel continues to face the dilemma it has been facing for nearly a decade. Israel’s responsibility, and overriding goal, is to ensure that its citizens can live ordinary lives free of the threat of violent attack. Its dilemma is whether to confront that threat directly with force, and if so how much, or to seek a ceasefire. Whilst the latter option gains calm for its civilian population for the time being, it allows the militant groups in the Gaza Strip to enhance their capabilities unfettered and build a greater arsenal with which to threaten Israel in the months and years to come. These are the difficult questions with which Israeli policy makers are currently dealing.


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