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Coping With Gaza's Rockets

Qassam rocket.
by Joshua Brilliant
UPI Israel Correspondent
Sderot, Israel (UPI) June 05, 2007
Palestinian militants have launched 294 rockets and mortar bombs into Israel since May 15, presenting the government with a problem: How to stop them? Two-thirds of those projectiles were Qassam rockets, pipes packed with propellants produced by dissolving sugar with fertilizers and explosives whose range of destruction is fairly small. The launchers are disposable.

The physical damage they caused was fairly small in military terms, but the volume of attacks has made a powerful impact.

Israel realized that small rockets could make a big impact in last summer's Lebanon war, when 4,000 Katyushas killed 40 people, demolished one building and damaged others, while disrupting life throughout northern Israel. Some 1 million Israelis left their homes or lived in bomb shelters. That, according to retired Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel, who heads Tel Aviv University's security studies program, was the main impact.

The Qassams that hit Sderot led some 10,000 of its 24,000 residents to leave town. Some camped in white tents among eucalyptus trees on the northern bank of the narrow polluted Yarkon River, in northern Tel Aviv.

Public pressure forced the government to improve defenses and the High Court of Justice ordered it to properly protect all classrooms. The 15-second advance warning of an incoming strike is too short to allow all pupils time to enter the present shelters.

But passive defense is not enough. The two people killed in Sderot were hit outdoors, one because the loudspeakers that are supposed to signal incoming rockets failed to do so.

Israel does not have an effective system capable of actively intercepting Qassams, mortar bombs or the short-range Katyushas, and the bombardment has exposed its vulnerability.

Israel, with U.S. funding, developed the Arrow missile to intercept Iranian and Syrian missiles that could be equipped with nuclear or chemical warheads. The system is operational, but each Arrow costs millions of dollars according to Uzi Rubin, the first director of Israel's missile defense program.

Other systems against short-range rockets were considered. Allied troops in Iraq use the Phalanx cannon, usually employed to defend vessels. Four such cannons would be needed to protect Sderot, 10 for Ashkelon and more for other villages surrounding Gaza, but they are not immediately available. It would take months to get it, Rubin said.

Israeli and American experts devised a laser cannon that dissolves rockets in midair. It was successfully tested in New Mexico but is cumbersome; its rays could not penetrate through clouds, and it creates environmental problems. So when the United States decided to drop the project, Israel accepted the decision.

Instead, Israel is focusing on two missile projects that require years to complete.

One, begun in 2005 in cooperation with U.S. firm Raytheon, is called "Magic Wand" and uses conventional technology to turn a small air-to-air missile into one that could protect a larger area against missiles with a range of 25 to 156 miles. Defense Ministry spokeswoman Maayan Malkin said it should be ready by the end of 2010.

The other, developed in Israel, is called "Iron Dome" and is expected in 2009, according to Malkin. It will include radar and a short-range missile, but the Defense Ministry and the Rafael armaments development authority would not reveal details.

This means that when Gazan militants launch a rocket, all Israelis can do is hope it crashes before it crosses the border, as dozens did, or hit open areas.

At the outset of the Lebanon War, Israel destroyed Hezbollah's heavier, longer-range rockets and hunted down the remaining launchers. Drones spotted launchings, traced the vapor to the launching pad and relayed the launchers' locations to attack aircraft that knocked them out, said Ben-Israel.

But when launchers are disposable such a tactic is ineffective.

Punitive counter strikes may not break the enemy's will to fight. The United States learned that in Vietnam, and 33 days of Israeli strikes in Lebanon, in which some 1,000 people were killed, did not silence Hezbollah.

"When Israel engages a sub-state terror organization ... it is liable to be surprised by the lack of sensitivity to damage inflicted on the host country," a report by the Institute for National Security Studies said.

Recent polls by An-Najah University in Nablus and Near East Consulting in Ramallah noted a small majority favored continued rocket attacks on Israel.

"Does firing rockets into Israel provide any real benefit to the Palestinians?" NEC asked. Sixty-six percent of the respondents answered "No." Only 2 percent of the respondents ascribed their sense of depression mainly to Israel's continued occupation, so why did so many respondents favor attacks?

Hebrew University Professor Matti Steinberg told United Press International the reason was psychological, a desire to vent frustration.

Some military experts advocated occupying launching areas, at the very least.

But any improvement in the rockets' range would require Israel to go deeper into Gaza and stay there or else attacks would resume as soon as its troops leave.

Former Chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon noted at a Tel Aviv University conference that fighting in Gaza requires different tactics to battling in Nablus; both are different to fighting Hezbollah, let alone confronting the Syrian army.

"When you train reservists a few days a year, for how many scenarios can you train?" he asked. Moreover, fighting in Gaza would probably cost many more lives than the two lost in Sderot. The government, criticized for rushing into war with Hezbollah, will be doubly careful now.

The Shabak security service recommended continued targeted killings, and Israel has deliberately created the impression that political leaders would not be immune. Targeting Hamas leaders in 2004 led the group to seek a cease-fire, Ya'alon noted. But this latest round has not proved so effective. Israel has launched small incursions and airstrikes on suspected militants, Hamas positions and moneychangers' offices that fund Hamas. Its troops have crossed the border and made arrests. While the frequency of attacks has been reduced, the rockets still blare.

More than 60 have died in 70 rocket attacks since May 15, army and Shabak figures say.

Source: United Press International

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