Israel Update for November 2012

David Dolan
David Dolan

The long and bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict took centre stage once again during November as a new barrage of Hamas rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian centres provoked a major military response. The operation, dubbed Pillar of Defense, began mid month, leaving fresh casualties on both sides of the conflict and many damaged or destroyed buildings and homes. A full army ground incursion into the small Gaza Strip coastal zone was only narrowly averted via indirect negotiations brokered by, of all parties, the new Muslim Brotherhood government ruling Egypt. However all admitted the unofficial ceasefire that went into effect on November 21 was tenuous at best. Near the end of the military campaign, terrorists exploded a bomb placed on a Tel Aviv bus-the first bus bombing to rock Israel since 2008.

The eight-day mini-war was similar to previous armed skirmishes between the radical Palestinian Hamas movement and the Israeli Defense Forces. In almost all cases, Hamas gunners sent locally produced Kassam rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. However each time, the flying range of the rockets has always proved to be farther than the previous encounter. This pattern was repeated during the recent flare up, with Iranian-produced Fajr three-stage rockets striking the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. Attacking Israel's major urban centre located due north of the Gaza Strip along the coast, and the country's capital city, crossed a serious red line that government leaders had always made clear would not go unpunished. Indeed, IDF army, navy and especially air force responses were swift and punishing, hitting multiple rocket-launching sites and other Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions and personnel.

Following three days of multiple Palestinian rocket attacks during the second week of November, the latest armed conflict sharply escalated after IDF missiles successfully targeted a vehicle carrying what many considered to be the main Hamas militia leader, Ahmad Jabari. He was said to have been behind the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He also organized thousands of previous Hamas rocket assaults upon Israeli civilian communities. The new round of fighting naturally left many civilians dead and wounded on both sides, especially in the crowded Gaza Strip. As before, the IDF said it did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, dropping leaflets to warn of impending attacks and even making phone calls and sending text messages to do the same. Despite this, dozens of non-combatants were, as usual, wounded and killed in the conflict. Also as usual, the international media tended to focus on the Palestinian casualties, constantly noting that many more Arabs were being slain or wounded than Israeli Jews. This downplayed the fact that Hamas terrorists were deliberately firing rockets from their own civilian neighborhoods, apparently seeking shelter behind their fellow Palestinian people. More than that, Israeli military and government spokesmen frequently pointed out that Hamas and its Islamist comrades were deliberately targeting civilian centres, while the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid non-combatant deaths and injuries.

Israeli leaders noted that if the new Iron Dome anti-rocket system's five batteries had not been in operation, many of the nearly 1,500 rockets fired at Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip during November would have exploded on the ground, undoubtedly substantially raising the Israeli civilian casualty toll, which would have sparked off a substantially stronger IDF response. Despite this, six Israelis, four of them non-combatants, were killed by rocket and ground fire. Dozens were wounded, several seriously. Among Israeli targets hit by Palestinian rockets were two apartment buildings and a regional school, whose young students were thankfully not inside at the time since regular daily life in the area had earlier come to a screeching halt. The sophisticated Iron Dome system, partly funded by the United States, was said to have successfully intercepted over eighty per cent of the incoming rockets it was aimed at. In fact, the Israeli defense company manufacturing the system revealed they are already receiving inquiries from various countries about the possibility of purchasing the intricate anti-rocket defense system for their own domestic use.

Israeli government officials constantly pointed out that Iranian-produced rockets were being heavily deployed by Hamas during the short but intense conflict. This raised the very likely prospect that Iran's extremist Shiite Muslim leaders had ordered the rocket strikes in order to test Israel's ability to intercept and destroy them. If so, the Iron Dome's overall operational success might help to deflect future attacks from the Palestinian coastal zone, and also from Iran's main regional puppet force, the heavily armed Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia. Meanwhile the substantial, pinpoint IDF counterstrikes certainly served to weaken Hamas' overall military capabilities, which might prove strategically important if Israeli leaders order an assault upon Iran's sprawling nuclear production facilities in the coming months. However several days after the conflict ended, foreign and domestic media outlets reported that Iran was rushing fresh rocket shipments to Gaza via Egypt and Sudan. The IDF warned its naval vessels would intercept the weapons at sea, as it has done before.

Along the tense northern border, mortar shells were fired at Israeli army positions from Syria and Lebanon on several occasions during November. This came as Syrian government opposition groups announced they had formed a "unified coalition" to continue their armed rebellion against the Assad regime, which some reports say has left nearly 40,000 people dead so far. To the north of Syria, Turkey deployed additional anti-rocket batteries along its southern border in order to respond to provocative attacks from the Assad regime forces. Lebanese army sources announced they had halted planned Hizbullah rocket attacks directed at Israeli positions as the fighting raged in and around the Gaza Strip. In neighboring Jordan, anti-government protests intensified as additional Syrian war refugees poured into the country.

Raining Rockets

Visiting family in the United States as I was this autumn-and in a place without easy internet access-this Jerusalem-based reporter found it difficult to keep up with the news from Israel. It seems the electronic American media in particular tends to only report on Palestinian rocket attacks after Israel begins to respond to them. I know this is also the case in the UK, and probably also in most other countries around the world. Indeed this was the exact scenario during the first half of the month, when nearly 80 rockets were fired at Israeli civilian areas without much international media coverage or attention. Most of the rockets actually landed in the three days prior to the launching of operation Pillar of Defense, causing casualties and destruction in their wake.

Nearly 400 Palestinian rockets were fired at Israeli targets last year (when the Iron Dome system was first deployed), spiking with a barrage of 155 rockets in August alone. In fact, not one single month went by since January 2011 without at least one rocket assault upon neighboring Israeli civilian areas. Almost 100 Palestinian rockets exploded inside Israeli territory during 2010. Every time a rocket firing was detected by Israeli radar, air raid sirens sounded in the targeted areas, sending Israeli men, women and children scrambling to bomb shelters or to reinforced protective rooms in their homes. During the previous five years-following the traumatic Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005-nearly 4,000 rockets were shot at mostly Israeli civilian centres from the Hamas-ruled coastal zone. As current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned when his longtime Likud party colleague Ariel Sharon ordered the controversial and painful evacuation mid-decade, Hamas has turned its "liberated" zone into a massively armed camp from which to carry on with its self-declared jihad war designed to annihilate the world's only Jewish State.

During November's IDF Pillar of Defense operation, rocket attacks peaked on the second and third day. A total of 179 rocket firings were detected on November 15, with 180 launched the next day. One rocket hit a transit bus in the besieged city of Beersheva, injuring the driver but no passengers since the bus at the time was empty. City residents were mostly obeying orders-and common sense-to stay off of the streets, with most shops, businesses and government offices closed. All schools in the region, including Beersheva's Ben Gurion University, had earlier been shut down for the duration of the crisis. Iron Dome rockets thankfully intercepted most of those rockets that the system's advanced radar and computers projected were heading toward built-up civilian areas like the cities of Ashkelon, Beersheva and Ashdod. By the end of the military operation, the IDF said Iron Dome defensive rockets had successfully intercepted and destroyed over 300 rockets aimed at built-up areas. At least 10 of the rockets were advanced Iranian-produced Fajr-5 rockets, which have a range of around 50 miles-­more than enough to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not to speak of the much closer metropolitan areas mentioned above.

For the first time, several Gaza-based rockets were in fact aimed at Israel's two largest cities. Residents of the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, located very close to the Palestinian Authority-controlled city of Bethlehem, reported that one of the rockets landed in their vicinity. That provocative attack sparked off the first sounding of air raid sirens across the Holy City during an actual hostile rocket attack since the War of Attrition was fought with Egypt in 1970. The jarring rocket explosion could be heard in many southern parts of Israel's capital city, followed by the wail of sirens perched on first responder police cars and ambulances. Thankfully no one was hurt in the unprecedented Hamas attack. On the next to last day of the conflict, two more Iranian-made rockets were directed at Jerusalem, with one landing in the Gush Etzion settlement block just south of the capital city and another a bit further south near the ancient city of Hebron, sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

The extremist Hamas movement claimed responsibility for most of the hostile rocket firings during November. Middle East analysts said the movement, which violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in August 2007 (not achieving that control due to earlier Palestinian elections, as many American commentators falsely claimed), was in fact behind most of the assaults. However several other radical Palestinian organizations that operate in the coastal zone with the compliance of Hamas also took "credit" for the deliberate attacks on Israeli cities and towns. Among them was the so-called "Popular Resistance Committees," which is largely made up of Hamas operatives. The PLO's "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine" also claimed that it fired rockets at Israel, along with the "Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine" and the PLO Fatah-linked "Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade." Several smaller groups loosely related to Al Qaida also boasted that they had fired into Israeli territory, a claim that cannot be verified but may well be true.

Whatever the case, the Israeli government continued to hold the Hamas terrorist movement responsible for all of the rocket firings since the other Palestinian groups only operate in the Gaza Strip because extremist Hamas leaders turn a blind eye to them, at the very least. Therefore any rocket firings were considered fair game for IDF counterstrikes upon Hamas targets, whoever was actually behind them. "If you seize control of an area of land, you are ultimately fully responsible for what goes on in it," noted one Israeli Knesset member.

Pillar Of Defense