CJPME Factsheet 35, published January, 2009: Since 2001, Palestinian militants have been launching small rockets – typically referred to as “Qassam Rockets” – from Gaza toward nearby Israeli population centers, notably Sderot and Ashkelon. Israel often tries to justify its violence in Gaza as an attempt to stop the rash of rocket attacks. Sadly, the reporting of such attacks, Palestinian and Israeli, does little to illuminate the context to such attacks.
Qassam Rocket attacks from Gaza
As of January 18, 2009, a total of 28 Israelis have been killed by Qassam rockets since the attacks started in 2001. As indicated in the graphs at the right, for every Israeli killed by Qassam rockets, Israel has killed about 100 Palestinians through various means.
Qassam rockets are small: ranging from 79 cm. in length to about 2 m. in length for the more sophisticated. Warheads can vary from .5 kg. to up to 10 kg. for the biggest rockets. The largest have a range of up to 10 km. The rockets are deployed on portable launchers, and can be launched by remote control.
Because the Qassam rockets do not have guidance systems, they are fairly inaccurate, and as a result are aimed at population centers versus military targets.
To the international community, Israel has tried to justify years of violence in Gaza as a necessary deterrent to the Qassam attacks. However, in addition to the extremely rare fatalities, Israeli Army leaders admit that the rockets are “more a psychological than physical threat.” Even with the threat of more sophisticated rocket technology, only 2.6% of Israel’s population would actually fall into range of the rockets.
Hamas leaders perceive the rocket attacks as the most preferable approach to resisting the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar says Hamas prefers rocket attacks to suicide bombings because rockets “cause mass migration, greatly disrupt daily lives and government administration, and make a much
[larger] impact.... We have no losses, and the impact on the Israeli side is so much.” Thus, from Hamas’ strategic standpoint, rocket attacks are bound to continue unless the illegal Israeli occupation of Gaza is modulated in some way.
How do average Palestinians feel about the Qassam attacks?
There are two angles to the average Palestinian’s attitude toward the rocket attacks. On the one hand, a modest majority of Palestinians believe the rocket attacks from Gaza should stop: in a poll in late January, 2008, 53 percent of Palestinians rejected the attacks, while 43 percent of them supported the attacks. These results reflected a change in position by Palestinians vis-à-vis a poll conducted in May, 2007, where 51 percent of Palestinians supported the attacks, while 43 percent opposed them. In addition, in the 2007 poll, 66 percent of Palestinians indicated that the rocket attacks did not provide “any real benefit to the Palestinians.”13 However, as Dr. Eyad Sarraj (Gaza psychiatrist and founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program) observes, “There is no popular movement against the firing of rockets. How can people oppose this kind of resistance, if there is no hope of ending the occupation? Israel perpetrated a massacre [on 15 January 2008] in which nineteen people, including [Hamas leader] Mahmoud Zahar's son, were killed. People cheer rockets against Israel and will continue to do so until there is hope that Israel will end the occupation and give Palestinians back their land, their rights and their freedom.”
What is the legality of Qassam attacks and Israeli violence in Gaza?
Both types of attacks are illegal under international humanitarian law (IHL.) Since the Qassam rockets cannot be precisely targeted, and are thus launched against civilian population centers, they violate IHL which prohibits direct and/or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects. For Israel, its siege of the entire Gazan territory, and its various violent assaults in Gaza are both explicitly illegal under IHL. IHL requires that the occupying force ensure that the civilian population have adequate provision for its economic livelihood, foodstuffs, medical care, education and property: all of which have been violated by Israel in its siege. Israel’s attacks in Gaza against “alleged” militants which incur civilian casualties also do not respect provisions in IHL for the protection of civilians. Human Rights groups have also made compelling legal cases demonstrating Israeli collective punishment in Gaza.
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