Palestinian Qassam Rockets Pose New Threat to Israel

(updated January 17, 2011)

The Qassam rocket threat against Israel began in 2001, when Hamas first unleashed their newest weapon against Israel, at a time when Gaza was under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Yasser Arafat. The number of rocket launches between 2002 and 2005 steadily increased, even after the death of Arafat in 2004. Although Mahmoud Abbas publicly called for an end to the rocket fire in 2006, Qassam rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilian population centers has continued unabated.

In August 2005, Israel evacuated all settlements and withdrew its troops from Gaza with the expectation that progress toward peace would follow. Instead, the number of rocket attacks increased by more than 500 percent. During 2005, 179 rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza. That number increased to 946 strikes in 2006 after Hamas’ parliamentary victory in the January 2006 elections.

The firing of Qassam rockets introduced an entirely new dimension in the on-going Palestinian terror campaign against Israeli citizens. Terrorists no longer have to risk infiltrating Israel and possible arrest by security forces; they can sow fear and cause death and destruction from a distance. Rocket crews can operate with near impunity by using Palestinian civilians as shields and firing their lethal explosives from within dense population centers, such as the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Qassams were first developed as a short-range version of the Katyushas, which Hezbollah launched against Northern Israel, but recently, the Qassam has been upgraded to have a longer range and more lethal trajectory. The Qassam-1 has a range of up to 3 miles and the six-foot-long Qassam-2 has a range of up to five miles and can carry a payload of more than 20 pounds of explosives. The upgraded Qassams now have a range of more than 7.5 miles, nearly doubling the reach of the original rockets.  Even more worrisome, Hamas has recently acquired Iranian-made Grad rockets, which again double the range of the newly upgraded Qassam, and are expected to be producing their own Grad-type rockets by the end of 2008.

The rockets are relatively inexpensive to produce, and easy to transport and launch. As their weapons have grown more powerful and Iran has supplied more advanced missiles, the Palestinians have greatly increased the number of Israeli civilians they can terrorize. Now much of southern Israel is within their range, including the major port city Ashkelon and its nuclear facility in Dimona. The number of Israeli civilians under rocket threat from Gaza increased from 25,000 to 250,000.

AFP photo

Despite the small size of the Qassams, they are able to inflict a maximum amount of damage and casualties, and cause irreparable harm to those people living in the direct path of rocket trajectories, such as the citizens of Sderot. They can come from nowhere so quickly that even Israel’s relatively advanced warning system gives Israelis mere seconds to seek cover when an alert is sounded. These are truly terror weapons aimed at making the lives of Israelis unbearable and raising the level of anxiety beyond human endurance.

In fact, during the first two months of 2008 alone, nearly 450 rockets have rained down on Israeli kindergartens, schools, parks and homes. Prior to 2006, the number of Palestinian rocket attacks rarely reached 50 per month. By early 2008, Hamas displayed a capability of launching nearly 50 per day. Thousands of families have been made to live in fear every day. The most ordinary tasks, such as driving to school or walking to the bank, cannot be completed without risking life and limb.

Israeli security officials are fearful that rocket attacks are only going to grow in number and lethality. Breaches of the Gaza-Egypt border fence, and ongoing smuggling operations, have raised the specter of a Hezbollah-style war waged in the future from Gaza, in which thousands of missiles would be fired into Israeli cities, perhaps with a renewed attack from the north by Hezbollah. Because Israeli officials fear that Hamas would take advantage of Israel’s termination of counter-terror operations, they have been reluctant to consider negotiating a ceasefire. If Hamas were to greatly expand its arsenal for the next round of fighting, Israel will face a far more dangerous threat.

In January 2011, due to the improved launching capabilities of Hezbollah and Hamas, the Israeli Home Front Command decided to shorten the warning time for Tel Aviv and Gush Dan residents against incoming missiles from two minutes to 90 seconds. Over the years, Hamas and Hezbollah have attained longer range missiles which they can launch with a more heightened precision than in the past, prompting the 25 percent reduction in warning time and a modification of emergency Home Front Command protocol. According to 2011 security assessments, Israel will not have an effective deterrent for medium-range missiles, the type most likely to be used to attack central Israel, until 2013.

Sources: Near East Report (February 25, 2002).
Dore Gold. “Israel’s War to Halt Palestinian Rocket Attacks.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (March 2008).