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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Operation Cast Lead, 10 Years On: Hamas’ Terrorism from Gaza Continues

Ten years ago this month, Israel responded to the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas’ aggression with a major offensive. Following Hamas’ launch of hundreds of rockets into Israel, the Jewish state had no choice but to respond with vigorous action. Since then, Israel has continued to struggle with Hamas’ ongoing terrorist buildup and violent aggression.

Background: Israel Withdraws and Hamas Opens Fire

In August 2005, Israel removed from the Gaza Strip every Israeli—including all 8,000 Jewish residents and all military personnel—with the hope Palestinians would focus on building their economy. Regrettably, this did not happen. Palestinians destroyed economic assets like the greenhouses that Israel left behind while firing some 2,700 rockets into Israel from 2005-2007.

To compound the problem, Hamas in 2007 seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a violent coup. The Iranian-backed terrorist organization immediately escalated the violence against Israeli civilians while preparing for future aggression by digging attack tunnels.

When Israel discovered and destroyed one of these tunnels in November 2008, Hamas launched barrages of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli communities. On Dec. 18, Hamas fired more than 20 rockets into southern Israel—shattering a ceasefire to which it had agreed. The U.N. Secretary-General strongly condemned Hamas’ actions and warned of further harm to civilians if the attacks did not cease. But Hamas ignored the Secretary-General and launched more than 600 rockets and mortars within the next few days—striking more than 100 Israeli towns and villages.

Operation Cast Lead: Israel Responds—with Restraint

Having tried and failed to stop Hamas’ rocket attacks through diplomacy, Israel sought to end the violence by launching Operation Cast Lead. On Dec. 27, 2008, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) commenced airstrikes against Hamas military targets throughout the Gaza Strip.

At the start of the operation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an address to the nation:

For approximately seven years, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in the south have been suffering from rockets being fired at them. Life in the south under rocket barrages had become unbearable. Israel did everything in its power to fulfill the conditions of the calm in the south and enable normal life for its citizens in the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The quiet that we offered was met with shelling.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and IAF undertook extraordinary measures to reduce civilian casualties. The IDF extensively employed leaflets and phone messages to warn Palestinians to leave targeted areas; Israel did this even though doing so meant losing the strategic element of surprise. IAF commanders repeatedly called off airstrikes if civilians were spotted in targeted locations. The IAF also used a technique it called a “knock on the roof”—small bombs designed not to explode but to signal residents to leave targeted buildings. Unfortunately, Hamas caused significant harm to Palestinian civilians by using them as “human shields”—firing rockets from facilities such as mosques, schools, hospitals and even cemeteries.

Israel’s limited, targeted airstrikes failed to stop the rocket barrages. Hamas was able to hit major Israeli cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba. To suppress the rocket fire, Israel had no choice but to mount a major ground operation. It began on Jan. 3, 2009, and ended on Jan. 18 with a unilateral Israeli ceasefire. Hamas then suspended the rocket launches.

As is too often the case, Israel’s defensive actions led to criticism by international organizations. For example, in September 2009, a U.N. mission led by Judge Richard Goldstone concluded that both the IDF and Hamas had committed war crimes. But the IDF’s efforts to limit civilian casualties and Hamas ruthless disregard of the well-being of Gazan civilians became clear even to Judge Goldstone over time. On April 1, 2011, Goldstone wrote in The Washington Post that subsequent Israeli investigations clearly “indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy” while the assertion that “the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying.” He further expressed regret “that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence.”

Operation Pillar of Defense: More Hamas Rockets; the IAF Responds

The ceasefire following Operation Cast Lead did not last long. Hamas once again began launching rockets into Israel, gathering momentum in 2011 (680 rockets) and 2012 (nearly 800 rockets before the operation started). During that period, Hamas also received from Iran advanced Fajr-5 rockets, which put Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within range with heavier and more lethal warheads. Meanwhile, Israel, with funding assistance from the United States, was investing tremendous time and resources into developing an effective system to protect its citizens from this threat.

In October 2012 alone, Hamas launched more than 170 rockets and mortars into Israel, including 80 rockets in one 24-hour period. Nearly 200 rockets were launched in November, striking homes in Israeli cities, with one landing near a school. Several Israelis were wounded by shrapnel in a barrage designed to coincide with the morning commute to work. Two people were injured when their car sustained a direct hit. Schools across southern Israel were closed.

The final escalation before Operation Pillar of Defense began on Nov. 10, when Hamas struck an IDF jeep with an anti-tank missile, wounding four soldiers. Over the next three days, Hamas launched nearly 200 rockets into Israel from Gaza. In response, Israel initiated Operation Pillar of Defense on Nov. 14.

The operation lasted eight days and was conducted mainly by the IAF, which targeted Hamas rocket launchers, warehouses, command centers and government sites. As in Operation Cast Lead, the IAF dropped leaflets throughout Gaza warning residents to keep their distance from Hamas facilities and forces. Despite Hamas’ aggression, Israel allowed dozens of trucks loaded with humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza during the operation.

On Nov. 15, two of Hamas’ Fajr-5 rockets struck Tel Aviv—the first-ever Gaza rocket strike to hit the 400,000-resident city. Two rockets landed near Jerusalem. During the eight days of the operation, Hamas launched more than 800 rockets from Gaza (in addition to the 800 rockets launched from Gaza in 2012 before the operation), killing and injuring several people;

During this period, Israel continued work on an advanced rocket-defense system. In 2011, Israel deployed the Iron Dome, which determines where an incoming rocket will land and responds if it threatens either military facilities or civilians. Performing at close to a 90 percent success rate, Iron Dome successfully intercepted most of the rockets that would have otherwise struck populated areas.

Operation Protective Edge: The IDF Responds to More Rockets, Murder of Teenagers

Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense gained a year of relative quiet. The number of rockets launched by Hamas fell from more than 1,600 total in 2012 to 39 in 2013. But it sharply increased to more than 370 in 2014 prior to Operation Protective Edge. Hamas fired most of those rockets in June and early July. Israel also discovered three terror tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel, two of which were loaded with explosives.

The countdown to Operation Protective Edge began in June 2014, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by a Hamas cell in the West Bank and multiple barrages of rockets from Hamas in Gaza. Israel initiated Operation Protective Edge on July 8, 2014; it lasted seven weeks.

During the first week of the operation, the IDF limited its military actions to airstrikes and artillery barrages. When 13 armed Hamas terrorists were spotted emerging from a terror tunnel on the Israeli side of the border, everything changed. The 13 terrorists managed to escape, but the IDF destroyed the tunnel's exit and mounted a ground operation in Gaza to discover and destroy any additional tunnels from which Hamas could attack and kidnap Israelis. During the war, several Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed by terrorists emerging from tunnels in Gaza. On July 20, Hamas terrorists killed IDF soldier Oron Shaul and are still holding his body for ransom.

Israel agreed to several short-term ceasefires to enable the transfer of humanitarian supplies into Gaza. During the operation, Israel allowed nearly 2,000 truckloads with more than 40,000 tons of supplies, including food, medications and other humanitarian goods, to be transferred to Gaza. But on Aug. 1, Hamas attacked an IDF unit attempting to destroy a tunnel during a ceasefire, killing Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and capturing his body—which it still refuses to return to his family. Two days later, Israel pulled most of its ground forces out of Gaza after destroying as many as 32 terror tunnels. Hamas fired hundreds more rockets and mortars, leading to additional IAF airstrikes. The operation ended on Aug. 26. During those seven weeks, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based terrorist organization, fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israel.

The Last Four Years: From Relative Quiet to the Verge of Explosion

Operation Protective Edge reduced the number rockets launched from Gaza to its lowest level since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007: 25 in 2015, 15 in 2016 and 35 in 2017. The relative lull ended in late May 2018, when Hamas launched 70 rockets and mortars from Gaza in just one day. Fifty-eight rockets were fired in June, and as many as 200 rockets and mortars on July 14 alone. The number of projectiles fired from Gaza into Israel increased to 460 on Nov. 12—the largest one-day barrage to date. Hamas has also used sophisticated sniper rifles reportedly modified in Iran to target Israeli border patrols, killing an Israeli soldier on July 20. The IAF responded to these attacks with airstrikes against Hamas targets.

Hamas has also adopted two new terrorist tactics: Since late March 2018, Hamas has orchestrated massive riots along the Gaza-Israel border with numerous attempts to storm the border fence into Israel while attacking Israelis across the fence. Hamas has simultaneously launched many thousands of airborne incendiary devices, including kites and balloons, that have burned more than 8,000 acres of Israeli farms, parks and forests. These new manifestations of Hamas terrorism are still ongoing.

A partial explanation for the recent increase in Gaza-originated violence has been the ongoing conflict between the Ramallah-based PA under President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas in Gaza. Abbas wants to restore the PA’s authority in Gaza on terms that Hamas has rejected, particularly his demand that Hamas turn over its weapons to the PA security forces. To punish Hamas, Abbas has halted the monthly provision to Gaza of nearly $100 million and slashed salaries for PA employees in the enclave, exacerbating the financial struggles of Gaza residents and increasing their militancy. He has simultaneously opposed international efforts to alleviate suffering in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the PA’s opposition, Israel continues to allow the regular supply of humanitarian provisions to Gaza, including fuel for local power plants and cement for rebuilding homes damaged by Hamas’ clashes with Israel—even though Israel knows that Hamas will divert much of this fuel and cement for terrorist purposes, including terror tunnels.

Using innovative technology, funded in part by the United States, Israel has managed to discover and destroy many of those tunnels. From October 2017 to October 2018, the IDF destroyed 15 Hamas tunnels that crossed into Israeli territory.

Iron Dome, a dense network of bomb shelters around the border with Gaza, as well as instances of sheer luck have thus far prevented Hamas’ recent attacks from killing or injuring large numbers of Israelis. The Israeli government has therefore managed to resist heavy domestic pressure to mount a major ground operation to root out Hamas, largely limiting its response to IAF airstrikes. But this could change at a moment’s notice. Although Israel is not interested in a large-scale conflict in Gaza, just one Hamas rocket that tragically takes a number of Israeli lives could force Israel to undertake a more significant response.

The U.S. Must Stand with Israel

As the Jewish state confronts evolving threats from Hamas, the United States must continue to stand by Israel. While the IDF has spent considerable time and effort to address the threat of the terror tunnels and protect its citizens, technological barriers remain, and U.S. security assistance to Israel is vital in helping Israel confront this key challenge. Moreover, the United States must continue to support Israel’s right to self-defense against these terrorist attacks, and utilize economic, diplomatic and political pressure to isolate Hamas and other terrorist organizations that threaten the Jewish state.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report