The Year of the Rocket

The Katyushas fired by Hezbollah and the Qassams fired by the Palestinians had a greater influence than the change of leadership in Jerusalem and the strengthening of Iran.

The year 2006 deserves to be called "the year of the rocket." It was a year in which the firing of rockets into Israeli territory, from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, dictated Israeli foreign and security policy more than any other factor. The Katyushas fired by Hezbollah and the Qassams fired by the Palestinians had a greater influence than the change of leadership in Jerusalem and the strengthening of Iran.

Sderot and its environs absorbed about 1,000 Qassam rockets from Gaza over the past year, and during the Lebanon war, about 4,000 rockets were fired at northern Israel. The losses, the injuries and the damage were smaller than those caused in previous wars or by suicide attacks. But the rockets dragged Israel into prolonging fighting in Lebanon and convinced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and most of the public that it is dangerous to withdraw from additional territory in the West Bank or the Golan Heights.

Olmert buried the convergence plan for a clear reason: Israel can live with rockets on Sderot, and for a limited period even with rockets on the north, but it will have difficulty tolerating Qassams on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Haifa port and oil refinery could be closed for a month, because there are alternative facilities in Ashdod. But there is no substitute for Ben-Gurion International Airport. Nor for the centers of government, commerce and culture in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Jerusalem. Therefore, it is difficult to speak about a significant withdrawal in the West Bank, which would include evacuating the Israel Defense Forces from dominant locations, before a solution is found to the Qassam.

Israel's political and security establishments were slow to understand the strategic significance of the rockets. They mocked them as "flying objects," as junky weapons used by armed gangs. With the sophisticated weapons in Israel's arsenal, it is hard to get excited about a steel pipe filled with a mixture of sugar and fertilizer as a propellant, and a few kilograms of explosives in the warhead. What is all that compared to an F-16 fighter plane, an Apache helicopter or the IDF's smart bombs? But the power of the Qassam does not lie in its technology, but in the combination of massive firing and a lack of effective countermeasures. The shelling and assassinations in the Gaza Strip did not stop the firing, nor did the cease-fire.

The first Qassam hit Israel on February 22, 2002. Five years have passed since then, during which time it would have been possible to improve the defenses of the Jewish communities near Gaza and to develop a system for intercepting rockets. According to experts, within about two years, it would be possible to develop an initial defense system of anti-Qassam rockets or lasers. The system would not provide Israel with hermetic protection, but it would reduce the strikes. But senior army officers and the Defense Ministry considered that a waste.

The army's insensitivity seems strange in hindsight. First, the threat was familiar: Israel had been attacked in the past with Katyushas in the Galilee and the Beit She'an Valley. Second, the IDF warned of the thousands of Hezbollah rockets, but developed a response only to long-range rockets and neglected the smaller Katyushas. Third, the army understood that "searing the enemy's consciousness" is what wins wars, rather than the number of dead or the number of shells fired. These insights were not translated into a search for a response to the Qassam.

In the last discussion led by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, a few hours before he collapsed, he banged on the table and demanded that the defense establishment present new ideas to combat the Qassams. "This cannot continue," he shouted. Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned, rightly, that the primitive missile would turn into a strategic threat, and that he was waiting for recommendations for a defensive system. Olmert held a discussion as well.

Olmert and Peretz must assign high priority to the rocket threat and seek a combined military and diplomatic response to it - both in order to save Sderot and Ashkelon, and in order to restore the government's diplomatic freedom of action. Without such a response, the prime minister will find it difficult to keep his promise to create a new "demographic border" for Israel and to bring the settlers down from the hills.