How Hamas is winning the rocket war

Today, for the first time in decades, air raid sirens sounded across Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip crashed down harmlessly in open areas, but Hamas had nevertheless scored a propaganda victory: It had proved that it could endanger the lives of citizens in Israel's two largest cities.

These latest attacks are just one indication of how, despite Israel's best efforts, Hamas's stockpile of rockets is only growing deadlier with time. In October 2009, current Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen co-authored a study at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza: It reported that 600 rockets were fired into Israel during the 22-day war, most of which were domestically produced, short-range weapons. By comparison, the IDF reported earlier today that more than 550 rockets had struck Israel in the past three days -- and of course, the weapons managed to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which Hamas was incapable of doing during the previous conflict.

Bill Clinton, of all people, predicted this in a 2009 interview with Foreign Policy, and worried openly about what it meant for the future of a peace agreement. "[I]t's only a question of time until [these rockets] are de facto outfitted with GPS positioning systems. And when that happens and the casualty rates start to really mount, will that make it more difficult for the Palestinians to make peace instead of less?" he worried. "Because they will be even more pressed by the radical groups saying, ‘No, no, look, look, we are making eight out of 10 hits. Let's stay at this.'"

Assuming the Israeli government isn't willing to let a steadily increasing proportion of its population live under the threat of rocket fire -- a fair bet -- what is its answer to this conundrum?  For answers, I turned to retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, a former director of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, one of Israel's premier think tanks.

Brom's response will provide little solace for Hamas, or the people of Gaza. "Eventually, weapons are getting to Gaza, and because of that I don't think the solution is to prevent Hamas from holding these kinds of weapons. It's not possible," he says. "The only solution -- which is of course is a partial solution -- is deterrence."

In a nutshell, Brom's argument is that Israel can't stop Hamas from acquiring these weapons -- but it can make the costs of using them unbearably high. It's a recipe for many future confrontations just like this one.

And the rockets that struck Tel Aviv and Jerusalem today? "They are not really a military problem," Brom says. "They are a media issue." While they are big enough to be easily detected and destroyed, it's the smaller, short-range rockets that pose the real threat.

"The problem with the shorter-range rockets is that they are small and the quantities are much bigger, so you can't destroy them by pre-emptive strikes," he says. "If the IDF will consider a ground invasion, it is because of the shorter-range rockets and not the longer-range rockets."

An edited version of our conversation is below:

Foreign Policy: What rockets are being fired into Israel this time around?

Shlom Brom: [Hamas] has two categories of rockets: Rockets that they produce themselves, the so-called Qassam rockets, which are based on primitive technology -- they are actually metal pipes produced in small workshops. They are highly inaccurate, they have a relatively small warhead, and short range.

Now, the other category is military standard rockets, which are produced by real military industries and smuggled into the Gaza Strip.  Most of these rockets come from Iran -- they are smuggled through Sudan, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and into the Gaza Strip. And because it is military standard, the ranges are longer, the warhead is more lethal, and they are a little bit more accurate. 

But in general rockets are inaccurate weapons -- they are based on probabilities, you know. If you launch a big enough number of rockets, one of them will hit.

FP: With the rockets reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the last two days, does this make an Israeli ground invasion more likely?

SB: No, I don't think so. Basically, I think that out of the two categories of rockets, the longer-range rockets and the shorter-range rockets, the more problematic category for the IDF are the short-range rockets. The longer-range rockets are big, so they are easily detectable and can be relatively easily destroyed. And that is exactly what happened during the first stage of this campaign. It's not incidental, that's the nature of the weapon - it is relatively easy to detect and relatively easy to destroy.

The problem with the shorter-range rockets is that they are small and the quantities are much bigger, so you can't destroy them by pre-emptive strikes. And if the IDF will consider a ground invasion, it is because of the shorter-range rockets and not the longer-range rockets.

[The long-range rockets] are not really a military problem. They are a media issue. Because when a rocket is launched at Tel Aviv, it makes an impression. And the way it affects the media is a problem, because in this kind of assymetric war, much of the war is a media war. The other party, Hamas, does not intend to win this war - they cannot this war. But they can try to hurt the Israeli public's confidence and cohesion, and that is done through the media.

FP: The number of rockets fired at Israel seems, at this point, to be exceeding the rate of fire during Operation Cast Lead. How has Hamas been able to expand its inventory?

SB: Through this smuggling, which was only accelerated as a result of the changes in Egypt. Sinai is actually a no-man's land. It's a kind of Wild West, and the Egyptian government doesn't really control it.

And on top of the delivery of weapons from Iran, there were also some rockets, missiles and other kind of armaments that were smuggled from Libya. After the fall of the regime in Libya, many groups utilized the chaotic situation to raid the weapon storage of the military and to sell it to anyone who pays. And some of that found its way to Gaza.

FP: Realistically, what can the IDF do to halt this slow increase in the lethality of Hamas's weaponry?

SB: It can slow it down - but that is only slowing it down. Eventually, weapons are getting to Gaza, and because of that I don't think the solution is to prevent Hamas from holding these kinds of weapons. It's not possible. The only solution - which is of course is a partial solution - is deterrence.

What I mean by deterrence is manifesting to Hamas and other armed groups that the costs they will pay much outweigh the benefits that they are deriving from the launch of these rockets. And for that, you need from time to time a Cast Lead Operation.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images


The trouble with pivoting to Asia while the Middle East burns

The optics would be crystal clear: Only days after Barack Obama's reelection -- and just as China underwent a once-in-a-decade leadership transition --  the top national security officials in the country would pack their bags and make a beeline for Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would visit Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey would swing through South Korea and Australia. To cap it all off, Obama would head to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, visiting the latter two countries for the first time and attending an East Asia summit in Phnom Penh.

Obama's "decision to travel to Asia so soon after his reelection speaks to the importance that he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national security interests and priorities," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. Go to the State and Defense Department websites, and you'll see top stories on Clinton emphasizing America's economic and security ties with Australia, and Panetta meeting with Southeast Asian leaders.   

The trouble, however, is that the White House is stepping up its pivot (or, as the administration would put it, "rebalancing") to the Asia-Pacific region just as the Middle East -- the very region the United States is fitfully trying to pivot away from -- grows more volatile by the day. Israel is calling up reservists and massing tanks and troops outside the Gaza Strip in a possible prelude to a ground invasion. Post-revolutionary Egypt is facing its first major foreign-policy test as it seeks to defuse the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. The United States is under pressure to follow the lead of countries like France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and formally recognize the Syrian opposition's new umbrella organization, as concerns grow about the security of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are busy investigating the Benghazi attack. Anti-government protests have gripped Jordan.

As these storylines develop over the next several days, America's commander-in-chief and secretary of state will both be out of the country in Asia. In the spring of 2011, you may recall, Obama cut short a trip to Latin America (one intended to emphasize regional economic and security ties) because of the recently launched military intervention in Libya. Will events in the Middle East once again sidetrack a carefully orchestrated diplomatic offensive?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images