June 01, 2007

Israel struggles for response to Qassams

Merav Maroody, FlickrAs a wave of militant rocket strikes on Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip begins to wane, ISN Security Watch discusses the impact of the strikes with Israeli commentators.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (01/06/07)

The Israeli government seeks to build pressure on Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups, launching air strikes and commando raids as missile strikes continue on neighboring Israeli communities.

More than 220 Qassam rockets have been fired into Israel since intensive Fatah-Hamas battles in the Gaza Strip began to wane in mid-May.

Israel has launched aerial attacks targeting launch-crews; Hamas' Executive Force; metal workshops; warehouses allegedly used to store the missiles; and money exchange shops, purportedly used to pass fund to Hamas.

At least 40 Palestinians have died in these raids that have continued despite a significant drop-off in rocket firing in recent days. Most were militants, but Palestinian sources say that seven children are among the dead.

Holding back
Despite commando raids and tank incursions in non-residential areas of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government remains opposed to a full-scale military operation in the territory despite significant pressure.

The Deputy Director of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies, Professor Ephraim Kam, told ISN Security Watch, "The government is hesitant to carry out a larger operation in the Gaza Strip and still has hope that the [current] measures will stop Hamas' Qassam firing."

"At any minute a Qassam can kill several people in Sderot and that would force the government to carry out a much larger operation," he said.

He explained that this operation would have two aims; the first: "to completely stop the Hamas firing of rockets against Sderot and other villages near the Gaza Strip. The other is to stop the strengthening of Hamas in the Gaza Strip on the basis of smuggling arms and trained fighters from Egyptian territory into the Gaza Strip."

Dr Dan Schueftan, a senior analyst at the National Security Studies Center and the conservative Shalem Center think tank agreed that, while the government's current response was appropriate: "I believe, in the final analysis, Israel will have to take much stronger action in the Gaza Strip."

"From the Israeli government's point of view it is much better if it comes when Israeli public opinion already demands it and when the US administration already understands that it is inevitable," he said.

Under fire
The chairman of Kibbutz Nahal Oz – situated adjacent to the Gaza Strip - Chaim Yellin, was near the kibbutz on Wednesday when a Qassam landed. "I was driving my car and it fell right next to me. I was [listening to] music on Army Radio [which sounds alarms] and suddenly the car lifted up. It is not like I had any warning."

"They are falling all the time all over the place, inside the kibbutz and outside," he told ISN Security Watch. "A man can go to work, or just go anywhere and his whole daily routine is disrupted. There is no normal life."

The 24,000 residents of the Israeli town of Sderot and smaller nearby communities have suffered regular rocket strikes for the past six years. The missiles claimed their eleventh victim last Thursday.

"Everything that Sderot has suffered [physically] in several years of attacks is less than one bus-bombing in Tel Aviv," Schueftan said, saying that the real problems are that, "the economy is on the brink of collapse and people can't sleep at night [and] the fact that you are constantly at the mercy of whether a rocket will hit your house."

"There are not many killed and wounded," Yellin confirmed, "It is the uncertainty, "Where will it fall, how it will fall, when will it fall […] It is an intolerable situation."

The Qassams are relatively primitive rockets packed with explosives and shrapnel. However, recent technological improvements have seen the rockets reach the southern outskirts of the city of Ashqelon.

"Qassam rockets are now more powerful and more harmful than they were two or three years ago," Kams said. "It is only a matter of time before they extend the range of the current rockets to Ashqelon and perhaps even beyond. The problem is going to be more severe in the future if we are unable to stop it," he added.

Written off as a significant threat by the Israeli military and government until recently, little had been done to shield Sderot residents from the missiles, with school classrooms unprotected and little work done to renovate dilapidated bomb shelters. The government protested this week that it would not have time to fulfill a High Court order to fortify all classrooms by the start of the school year in September.

Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal had sought to have the current school year suspended until adequate measures were taken to assure the safety of students, but his request was flatly turned down by the government for fear of setting a precedent.

Fifty Sderot reservists sent an open letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday saying they would find it difficult to serve in the army due to the government's alleged abandonment of its security responsibilities to the city's children.

Political football
Outgoing Defense Minster Amir Peretz, who lives in Sderot, has castigated previous defense ministers for failing to do more to build a missile defense shield for the city but has been unable to come up with a viable solution to the Qassam threat, despite backing interceptor plans.

"The prevailing view is that if the government will allocate the needed money [to missile defense] then the technical answer could be found within two or three years," Kam said, noting that, The government is under heavy pressure to do something tomorrow morning and not to wait until two years from now."

Right wing politicians are building significant political capital through the failure of the government to respond more forcefully to the ongoing rocket strikes.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman submitted a plan to the government on Thursday calling for the bombing of Gazan neighborhoods in response to rocket-firings; the severing all ties with the Palestinian Authority and Gaza - including the provision of water and electricity.

Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) called in a recent cabinet meeting for the evacuation of Palestinian residents from Gaza neighborhoods and their complete destruction in retaliation for attacks.

Yishai and Lieberman lead right wing junior coalition parties and their fulminations on the Gaza crisis are intended more for the ears of their base constituencies - which they fear could move toward the Likud - than for serious government consideration.

Of more concern to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is the corrosive nature of the ongoing crisis in Sderot on his government and his Kadima party's already abysmal public standing, with the encouragement the latter provides to potential leadership challengers.

Russian-Jewish billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak, who harbors political pretensions, made the government look inept over Sderot, paying for transport, short holidays and accommodation for thousands of city residents at the height of the May rocket attacks at a time when Olmert was enjoining residents to remain at home.

The government has responded to criticism of its performance by agreeing to declare Sderot a confrontation line community and making its residents and businesses eligible for tax breaks and compensation payments for indirect damages.

Referring to the government, Yellin said, "I have to trust that they are doing the best that they can. For six years no government has succeeded in solving the problem, so this is not the issue […] It seems that no matter what good you are trying to do the fact is that it hasn't worked."

The response of the resident of Sderot and surrounding communities to the ongoing rocket attacks mingles fear, anger and despair with a pervasive sense of alienation from the rest of Israel.

It is unclear how many have fled the city to relatives or friends further north but, given the lower economic status of most Sderot residents, few have the means to make a permanent move to the more expensive central coastal plain, while property owners are unlikely to find buyers for their apartments.

"There is half panic in Sderot and the fact that half of the population of the city has been evacuated is unbearable from the point of view both of the government and the citizens of Sderot," Kam said.

"It is like this every day for six years with ups and downs. It comes in waves," Yellin said.

"It doesn't seem real because they are not bombing us all the time but it is disturbing our lives and the kids are scared and no-one knows what to do."


Dr Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East

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