A wave of rockets and mortars from Gaza

Jun 1, 2018 | AIJAC staff

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Update from AIJAC

June 1, 2018

Update 06/18 #01

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week saw the most significant rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza since the 2014 Gaza war. In all, well over 180 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel over a 48 hour period, injuring five people in total, with Israel using airstrikes and tankfire to hit many Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza in return.

AIJAC prepared an information sheet on the attacks on Wednesday, summarising what was known, and also speculating about Iran’s possible role in sparking the current wave of violence. It is strongly recommended reading.

This Update supplements that information sheet with additional material on how matters ended – things are currently quiet – and what happened that sparked the violence.

We lead with Israeli military affairs reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, discussing how the events in Gaza came to an end – which involved Egypt proposing a ceasefire, with Hamas accepting but demanding a public promise from the Israelis that it could claim as a victory. Israel refused to give this, offering only an informal undertaking to continue their previous policy that “calm will be answered with calm.” After Hamas resumed firing, Israel struck back, and in the end convinced Hamas to agree to an informal return to the status quo understanding before the latest round of attacks. Ben-Yishai also explains how Israel’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to attacks was effective in this case. For his full informative analysis, CLICK HERE. Another commentator noting that Hamas backed down in the face of Israel’s strategy of gradual escalation is columnist Yoav Limor.

Next up is noted Israel strategic expert Col. Eran Lerman, who focuses on why Hamas allowed Palestinian Islamic Jihad to fire the rockets that started this round of violence. He notes that PIJ is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran, and Hamas currently cannot afford to annoy Iran. Moreover, this round of conflict was in Iran’s interests, given its desire to exert pressure on and threaten Israel, which it cannot really do through Syria at the moment. For Lerner’s larger discussion of the Iranian role in the current conflict and why Hamas felt it had to go along,  CLICK HERE. Israeli military sources are also pointing their finger at Iran for the current conflict, noting that almost all the rockets and mortars fired at Israel this week were Iranian-made. 

Finally, Judah Ari Gross of the Times of Israel notes another interesting element of the current round of rocket and mortar fire – the improved performance of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system. He points out that, in the 2014 conflict, Iron Dome was very effective against missiles and rockets, but was not able to handle mortars, because they are short range and in the air only relatively briefly. However, he notes that Israel has been striving since 2014 to improve Iron Dome and in this week’s round of conflict was able to eliminate numerous mortars – though it was of course not 100% effective, as evidenced by one mortar which got through to strike a kindergarten playground (which fortunately was empty). For more on the significance of Iron Domes’ improving capabilities, CLICK HERE.

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The full story behind the understandings for a truce in Gaza

Analysis: Israel turned down Palestinian organizations’ demand to issue official statement on ceasefire Tuesday evening, insisting that ‘calm will be met with calm.’ Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept firing rockets, but after IDF strikes in Gaza left no casualties, they informed Egypt they were prepared to halt fire. Rockets fired after 1 am were launched by small ‘rebel’ organizations.

Ron Ben-Yishai
Ynet.com,  May 30

The statements issued by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that they have reached a ceasefire with Israel, are false. Their aim is to create an impression that Tuesday’s exchanges of fire led to a tie between the Palestinian organizations and the IDF, and that the Palestinian organizations managed to achieve a situation of mutual deterrence, in which the IDF was forced to change its pattern of action as a result of the barrages fired at the western Negev communities.

The only thing that was achieved Tuesday night was understandings between the two Palestinian organizations and Egyptian intelligence officials. The Palestinians pledged to unilaterally halt the rocket fire, hoping that Israel would follow the “calm will be answered with calm” principle. The story behind these understandings is fascinating and explains the events of the past 24 hours.

Iron Dome interception missile in Ashkelon, Tuesday (Photo: AFP)

This was the chain of events: On Tuesday morning, Islamic Jihad started firing mortar shells at Israel. Concerned about its prestige, Hamas joined the rocket fire after the IDF struck in the Gaza Strip for the first time. In the afternoon, when the exchanges of fire continued, the IDF lowered its level of response by moving to tank shells. The Egyptians spotted the opportunity and suggested that the Hamas and Jihad leaderships, with whom they are in regular contact, halt the rocket fire.

The Egyptian intelligence officers likely told the Gazans in the early hours of Tuesday evening that according to Israel’s regular policy, if the Palestinians avoid firing rockets and trying to infiltrate Israeli territory, Israel won’t initiate any attacks.

After consulting each other, Hamas and Islamic Jihad informed the Egyptians that they wanted an explicit statement about a truce from Israel and the IDF. They need this statement to show their audiences that a new situation had been created—a mutual deterrence between equals. This false impression is aimed at covering up their failures in the past few weeks in the “marches of return” and in terrorist cells’ attacks on the border fence.

Painful but tolerable
The Egyptians didn’t get Israel’s approval for Hamas’ demands. Cairo has a double interest in preventing an escalation in the strip: One, to allow Egypt to fight the Islamic State in Sinai while Hamas stops the “rebel” ISIS activists in the strip from helping their friends in Sinai; two, to prove that the Egyptians have a real influence in the strip and gain prestige in the Arab world and in the international community.

Jerusalem refused to play the game and informed Cairo that Israel wouldn’t reach any understandings with Hamas and Islamic Jihad as long as they kept firing. Israel would stop striking in the strip only after a calm is achieved.

The Palestinian organizations were furious. In response, they launched dozens of rockets and mortar shells in the evening and in the night, sending the Gaza vicinity residents into their safe rooms. An Iranian-made rocket exploded in a soccer field in Netivot and another rocket hit a storage shed in the Eshkol Regional Council, but most of the rockets and mortar shells were intercepted by the Iron Dome system.

A home hit by a rocket in the Eshkol Regional Council on Tuesday night (Photo: Barel Efraim)

The IDF, in accordance with pre-prepared plans that had already been presented to the cabinet, increased its response level and attacked dozens of targets in the strip on Tuesday night. Like the previous strikes in the middle of the day, the night attacks were directed at Hamas and Islamic Jihad military posts, to give the terror organizations an opportunity to halt the rocket fire without suffering any casualties.

The IDF is well aware of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s regular drill: As soon as they open fire, they remove their people from their facilities and headquarters, knowing they would be targeted by the IDF. So the IDF was able to attack important facilities and headquarters of the two organizations, knowing there would be no casualties which would force the Palestinians to escalate the fire. The response was painful but tolerable, as far as the Palestinians were concerned, as they didn’t suffer any losses.

And then, at around 1 am, they informed the Egyptians that they were prepared to unilaterally halt the fire, assuming Israel would stick to its “calm will be answered with calm” policy. The Egyptians gave Israel the message, and the IDF announced that schools would be opened as planned in the Gaza vicinity on Wednesday morning.

The rockets fired after 1 am were launched by small “rebel” organizations. Since then, Hamas has been making efforts to stop them from firing.
IDF demands ease of restrictions in Gaza

It’s important to know that the course of events, both in the military area and in the talks behind the scenes between the Egyptians and the Palestinians, is the result of an IDF plan accepted by the Israeli cabinet. According to this plan, any rockets or shots fired at Israeli territory will be met with responses from the IAF, the ground forces and the Navy, and the damage they will inflict on Hamas and Islamic Jihad will grow gradually.

The IDF has reached the conclusion that in its war on terror organizations it must maintain the ability to gradually escalate its response, so it isn’t forced to enter another operation in the strip following every exchange of fire.

Like the army, the political echelon believes we have no business in the strip, and we definitely don’t want to control Gaza and take responsibility for two million residents. But a decision has been made in Jerusalem that if the IDF is eventually forced to enter the strip, the Hamas rule will cease to exist, with all that it implies.

Damage to a soccer field in Netivot (Photo: Avihay Marciano/Radio Darom)

Israel has no good alternative at the moment for the Hamas rule in Gaza =, as there is no one to take up the reins there, and an anarchy in the strip could explode in Israel’s face. The IDF is therefore careful not to use all its power and inflict all the damage it is capable of inflicting at once. Instead, the IDF has set “escalation steps” which it is accurately setting in motion in a bid to allow the Palestinian organizations to emerge from the escalation without admitting failure.

That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday. After the second blow that the IDF dealt to Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s facilities, the Gazans realized they had nothing to gain from continuing the rocket fire. They informed the Egyptians that they were halting the fire, knowing that the Egyptians would inform Israel.

But the lull that began Wednesday morning is still fragile, and we mustn’t enter a state of complacency. The IDF has restored its deterrence, but we’ve already seen the Palestinians act despite an existing fragile military deterrence. This is the reason the IDF keeps demanding, with the defense ministry’s support, more active measures on Israel’s part to rehabilitate the Gazan’s humanitarian situation. They need clean water, electricity, sewage and health services, and they need a break from the constant pressure they have been living under, just like the residents of the Gaza vicinity.

So in addition to financial aid, the Gaza Strip needs a long-term political arrangement which will stop Hamas and Islamic Jihad from increasing their military power. It’s not much, but it’s something, and we mustn’t wait for the Egyptians to achieve it. Egypt moves slowly, as we saw in Operation Protective Edge. We must enlist additional elements to achieve such an arrangement and a basic economic reconstruction of the strip.


Article 2

Hamas’ junior partner, Iran’s hidden hand

Eran Lerman

Israel Hayom, May 30

The mortar attacks and cross-border infiltrations from the Gaza Strip should serve as a reminder that Hamas may be in charge of the Gaza Strip, but it has a junior partner that is dangerous and capricious and that it refuses to disarm: Islamic Jihad.

There is a reason for this. While Hamas is, generally speaking, in contact with Iran, it still operates independently. But Islamic Jihad works on Iran’s behalf and is largely an Iranian proxy.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad on parade in Gaza: Hamas has decided to tolerate the groups activities to mollify Iran

Hamas has chosen not to take on Islamic Jihad so as not to exacerbate its already strained relationship with Iran (stemming from their differences over how to treat Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime). This has led to a situation in which Islamic Jihad acts as an independent military force that does not report to Hamas and serves a foreign interest.

Hamas knows that allowing this may come with a steep price, as the “mini conflagrations” that preceded the 2014 Gaza war showed. Islamic Jihad is not an organic Palestinian organization; unlike Fatah in the days of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and unlike Hamas now, it never fought to maintain its “istiklal al-karar” (“the right to make its own decisions”). Islamic Jihad is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of the Iranian regime and serves its interests.

Incidentally, this shows that the Iranian-led radical camp in the Middle East includes non-Shiites. There are virtually no Shiites among Palestinians; Islamic Jihad, like Hamas and Islamic State, is Sunni.

Iran has its own agenda. It finds it easier to exert pressure on Israel and threaten it without making Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, enter the fray through another war with Israel. It also prefers to avoid another confrontation with Israel on the Syrian front, which cost it dearly several weeks ago. Iran has opted to capitalize on the Gaza flare-ups, which generate solidarity with the Palestinians on perceived humanitarian grounds.

By doing so, Iran is also signaling Hamas that it can use force to derail Israel-Hamas mediation efforts led by Egypt, Qatar and others. Israel does not seek an escalation, nor does it want to let Iran drag it into its irresponsible game.

But it is also important that Israel’s reactions make it clear to Hamas that letting Islamic Jihad trigger another widespread escalation does not serve its interests or its continued existence.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.


Article 3

After failures in 2014 war, Iron Dome shows it can now down mortar fire too

This isn’t the first time the missile defense system has intercepted shells that are in the air for just 15 seconds, but it’s the first major operational test — and it passed


Times of Israel, 30 May 2018

The Iron Dome missile defense system succeeded on Tuesday where it had been entirely ineffective during the 2014 Gaza war: in shooting down incoming mortar shells that are in the air for just 15 seconds.

“The Iron Dome has been quite effective,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters. “It’s probably something [Gazan terrorist groups] didn’t take into account.”

This was not the first time that the Iron Dome has intercepted mortar fire, but Tuesday represented a significant test for the system, which the military believes it passed.

Over the course of Tuesday, scores of mortar shells, and some rockets, were fired at southern Israel by the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

Conricus said the shells, fired by the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, appeared to be an Iranian-made variety that had been smuggled into the coastal enclave.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, Iron Dome batteries succeeded in shooting down at least 25 incoming projectiles over the course of the day, most of them mortar rounds, though the army said it had yet to calculate a final tally.

Mortar fire by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip killed several Israelis during the 2014 Gaza war, including four-year-old Daniel Tragerman from Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

In the four years that have passed, Israel has worked continuously to improve the system to counter this threat. This included technological improvements and efforts to streamline the work of the soldiers operating the system.

The Walla news site reported that the army also changed the way in which the batteries were deployed along the Gaza border on Wednesday in order to give them a better chance of intercepting the dozens of mortar shells fired at southern Israel.

The Iron Dome system was initially designed to shoot down incoming rockets and missiles, which it did effectively during the 2014 conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

Over the years, the system has been upgraded to also be able to intercept drones and mortar rounds.

The Iron Dome’s first reported interception of mortar fire occurred in September 2016, when a battery in northern Israel shot down two incoming errant shells fired from Syria that were heading toward the Golan Heights, in an apparent case of spillover fire from the civil war there.

Mortar shells present a far greater challenge for the Iron Dome than rockets, owing to the shells’ shorter range — normally no more than four kilometers (2.5 miles).

In order for the Iron Dome to intercept an incoming projectile, the system must first spot it, determine based on its trajectory if it is heading toward a populated area and, if so, launch an interceptor missile to shoot it down.

The IDF launches a missile from the Iron Dome air defense system to intercept an incoming rocket from Gaza from a position in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 29 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Rockets and missiles remain in the air for far longer as they travel toward their target, which gives the Iron Dome’s automated systems and the soldiers that operate it more time to carry out these steps.

Mortar shells, on the other hand, are in the air for far less time. Residents of the Israeli communities closest to the Gaza border have 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter once a mortar shell is fired.

Tuesday showed that the Iron Dome is capable of shooting down mortar shells in this amount of time, though military officials repeatedly stressed that the system was not perfect.

“Nothing is hermetic, nothing is 100 percent,” IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis told Israel Radio on Tuesday afternoon.

For instance, one mortar shell from the first barrage of the day exploded in the yard of a kindergarten in southern Israel’s Eshkol region, just before children were due to arrive.

A caretaker at the school was lightly wounded by shrapnel from the shell.

Another mortar shell struck a military position east of the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, injuring three soldiers.

Two of the servicemen were lightly wounded and released from the hospital a few hours later. The third was moderately injured and required surgery, a spokesperson for Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center said.

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