A Balance of Fear: Asymmetric Threats and Tit-for-Tat Strategies in Gaza
A Balance of Fear: Asymmetric Threats and Tit-for-Tat Strategies in Gaza
Margret Johannsen


A Balance of Fear   Asymmetric Threats and Tit-for-Tat Strategies in Gaza


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By Margret Johannsen
This article looks at the use of ultra-short-range rockets by Palestinian militant factions in the Gaza Strip as part of the overall dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as a tool employed within internal Palestinian rivalries. Against the background of the gross military asymmetry between the parties to the conflict, it assesses the strategic utility of the rockets, including their psychological value as an “equalizer” to Israeli attacks. The article scrutinizes Israel’s options to counter the rocket threat and identifies steps toward containing violence in Gaza. While bearing in mind that several Palestinian militant groups are involved in the production, acquisition, and firing of rockets, this article focuses on Hamas because, due to its leadership role in the Gaza Strip, a solution for the rocket issue will not be found without factoring in and providing a role for the Islamic organization.

AFTER THE 1948 after the 1948 Palestine war and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the area under Israeli control, the Palestinian liberation struggle grew up largely in the territories of Israel’s Arab neighbors. Starting from the June 1967 war, the focus of the struggle became the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which also became the theater of resistance operations, both violent and nonviolent, under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). With the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the PLO in the 1990s, these territories became the locus of the Palestinian state that had become the PLO’s principal goal. Failure to resolve the conflict in 2000 led to a violent uprising during which Palestinian militancy escalated to suicide bombings targeting both Israeli soldiers and civilians. It was during this uprising that Palestinian rocket fire, dominated by Hamas and other Islamist factions that had emerged to challenge PLO dominance of the Palestinian movement, became an important part of Palestinian armed resistance and a significant factor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Ultra-Short-Range Rockets: Evolution and Rationale 

Especially since the dismantlement of the Israeli military infrastructure and settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005, unguided rockets and mortar bombs fired into southern Israel from the Strip have become the armed resistance’s weapon of choice. Most of these weapons have a range of up to twelve kilometers. The Qassam is the best known of the home-grown rocket varieties. Produced by Hamas, it is named, like the movement’s armed branch, after Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the Islamist militant whose killing by the British in 1935 helped spark the 1936–39 Palestinian revolt against the Mandate. Such labeling serves to legitimate the possession and employment of these weapons. Designations of rockets used by Palestinian militant groups other than Hamas include “Aqsa,” “Arafat,” “Kafah,” “Nasser,” “Quds,” “Saria,” and “Sumoud,” but the generic name remains “Qassam.” The Qassams, manufactured locally, are inaccurate and fall mostly into uninhabited areas without causing harm. A minority of rockets with an extended range, such as the Iranian-produced Katyusha-type Grad rockets and the Chinese-produced Weishi-type WS-1E rockets, are imported.

The number of casualties resulting from rocket attacks is low. From 2001 to 2008, some eight thousand rockets and mortar bombs were launched at Israeli territory. 3 The town of Sederot, located three kilometers from the border, has borne the brunt of the attacks, which during that period killed nineteen civilians and two soldiers. 4 During the Gaza war (dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military) of 2008–09, more than nine hundred rockets landed in Israeli territory, killing three civilians and one soldier. Some reached as far as forty kilometers beyond the border, landing close to Beersheba on the northern edge of the Negev desert, the seventh-largest city in Israel with a population of just under 200,000. During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Air Force employed F-16 fighter jets and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, reporting a 95 percent success rate with zero misses in the opening attack.

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MARGRET JOHANNSEN is a senior research fellow at the Institut für Friedenforschung und
Sicherheitspolitik (IFSH–Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy), an independent research institution at the University of Hamburg, Germany, where she coedits
the German annual Peace Report.