In 2008, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups fired 3,102 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip into Israel. After Hamas broke a six-month Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Israel launched a military incursion into the Gaza Strip, now known as Operation Cast Lead.
Three weeks into intensive ground and air operations, on January 17, Israel’s military brass declared Operation Cast Lead a victory. Major General Yoav Galant assessed: “There was nearly not one weapon storage facility, smuggling tunnel and terror operative house that was not hit in the Gaza Strip, and there were minimal tactical encounters by our forces with them (the Hamas terror operatives) that ended without an achievement on our part.”
Operation Cast Lead clearly appeared to be an Israeli win. Israeli forces operated at will inside enemy territory and sustained relatively few casualties, while at the same time delivering punishing blows to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, if the goal was to end Palestinian rocket attacks, the operation failed in several significant ways.
Israeli intelligence estimated that during the war, 1,200 rockets and over 80 percent of tunnels Hamas used for smuggling were destroyed. It was also surmised that Hamas had less than 1,000 rockets left in its arsenal, which has in the past included Grads, Katyushas, and Qassams.
However, Israeli air strikes and ground troops only partially damaged Hamas’ rocket-launching capability, and did not permanently destroy the groups’ ability to fire rockets. This was made clear throughout the three-week military offensive, when Hamas and other terrorist groups launched 776 rockets and mortars into Israel. Rocket attacks killed 4 civilians, injured 182, and sent 584 into shock. The rocket attacks also destroyed 1,500 Israeli homes and buildings and 327 vehicles. Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has fired approximately 100 more rockets and mortars.
Rocket Distance & Payload
It is also important to note that during Operation Cast Lead––and now after the ground invasion––the number of rockets has diminished, yet Hamas has fired more lethal rockets into Israel than ever before.
On December 28, for example, Hamas launched an Iranian-made Fajr-3, a rocket with a 27-mile radius, into the Israeli port-city Ashdod, located 25 miles from the Gaza Strip. It is believed that the Fajr-3 also struck a kindergarten in Beersheba, which is the same distance from Gaza as Ashdod.
In January, Israeli intelligence announced that Iran had successfully smuggled the 220-mm Fajr-4 rocket to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This rocket has a range of at least 55 miles. Hamas could use the Fajr-4 to attack Tel Aviv, 40 miles from the Gaza Strip, or even the town of Dimona in southern Israel, some 50 miles from the Gaza Strip, which contains a nuclear reactor.
In other words, Hamas had already adapted to its diminished rocket-launching capability. Faced with the prospect of fewer rockets, Hamas has simply added new rockets with longer distances and bigger payloads.
Thus, even though fewer rockets hurtle into Israeli airspace, the danger to Israel is now more severe. Before Operation Cast Lead, 130,000 Israelis lived within rocket range. Presently, Hamas’ incorporation of more sophisticated, long-range missiles has increased the threat to more than 700,000 Israelis vulnerable to rocket fire.
Over the years, Hamas has built a lucrative, illicit tunnel smuggling network, linking the Gaza Strip with the Sinai Peninsula, circumventing the strictures imposed at the internationally recognized Israeli-Egyptian border. The tunnels are Hamas’ paramilitary lifelines; guns, ammunition, explosives, and Iranian or Syrian-trained fighters are smuggled into the Gaza Strip on a daily basis.
During Operation Cast Lead, Israel destroyed at least 300 weapons smuggling tunnels. This severely curtailed Hamas’ ability to import more rockets or the parts necessary to build them. However, Israeli internal security services director Yuval Diskin now warns that “Hamas would soon rebuild the tunnels which were destroyed” and weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip would resume. Today, many of these smuggling tunnels are once again operational. Hamas has already smuggled untold stockpiles of anti-aircraft missiles, Grad rockets, and advanced C4 explosives.
Prior to Operation Cast Lead, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told members of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem that Hamas was “taught a lesson which hopefully will change realities.” Similarly, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Washington Post that Hamas “understand the equation has changed and we have gained deterrence.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak echoed praise of victory, stating, “Israel has regained its deterrence.”
Hamas, however, has categorically rejected the notion of an Israeli triumph, insisting they were the victors, despite the widespread destruction Hamas sustained. The Islamists base their claim on two arguments.
For one, Hamas boasts that its leadership survived and still rules the Gaza Strip. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared Operation Cast Lead a failure based on the fact his government was not toppled. As Hamas spokesperson Ahmed Yousef stated, “Israel has destroyed the buildings, but Hamas is still here.”
Hamas also claims victory because its rocket arsenal was not completely destroyed. On January 21, Hamas representative Abu Obaida asserted his organizations’ rocket capacity remains intact and the rockets “continued to fire during the war without interruption.”
More broadly, Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri denied defeat, claiming, “Israel has failed to reach its target… and Hamas is now stronger.”
Ending the Rockets
Operation Cast Lead proved to be an Israeli stopgap operation—a temporary solution for a long-term conflict. Israel deftly destroyed much of Hamas’ infrastructure and weaponry, but failed to eradicate the root of the problem. The Hamas leadership has emerged intact, in command of the Gaza Strip, and continues to launch rockets indiscriminately into Israeli cities nearly every day. The Islamist group, in keeping with its vow to annihilate Israel, has demonstrated its commitment to attain this goal by acquiring more advanced, deadlier rockets.
If Israel truly wishes to end rocket attacks and safeguard nearly 20 percent of its population now within firing range, it must engage in a more focused military campaign, aimed at purging the Hamas leadership. Undoubtedly, such an operation would be dangerous and meet with harsh rebukes from the international community, but there appears to be little choice, so long as Hamas continues to seek Israel’s destruction.
Demolishing more tunnels and eliminating part of Hamas’ rocket arsenal was a good start. But neutralizing those who smuggle and fire rockets is likely the most effective way to end this war.
Michael Sharnoff is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center.