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Resistance and Rockets: Hamas Targeting of Israeli Civilians

[Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute]

Summary ... Contrary to what the media and world leaders proclaim, Hamas's targeting of civilians is not an Israeli fabrication. The terrorist organization used its own elaborate media networks to publicize and praise attacks on civilian targets in Israel throughout the 2008-2009 Gaza war, despite its recent attempts to prove otherwise. Hamas views attacks on civilians as legitimate, appropriate, effective, and even heroic. In fact, such strikes are fundamental to its operations.

Recently, Hamas has gone to extraordinary lengths to prove that it did not attack civilian targets in Israel during the IDF Spokesperson's Web site on Operation Cast LeadDecember 2008 to January 2009 Gaza conflict. But a review of the organization's own media — including the Web site of its military arm, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the Hamas-associated monthly journal Filastin al-Muslima — shows that Hamas knowingly and repeatedly fired on Israeli population centers in southern Israel. To accept Hamas's latest claim that it did not launch rockets at civilians is to deny its numerous past claims to the contrary.

Claim vs. Conduct

On February 3, 2010, Hamas released a fifty-two-page response to the UN's Goldstone Report regarding its conduct during the Gaza war (called the "Battle of al-Furqan" in the organization's commentary). According to this document, the killing and wounding of Israeli civilians was unintentional — Hamas forces had targeted only military installations during the fighting. This claim was based on a supposed internal investigation conducted by Hamas and led by its justice minister, Faraj al-Ghoul.

Historically, however, Hamas's targeting of Israeli civilians goes beyond wartime exigencies — it is a fundamental aspect of the group's struggle against Israel. Civilian casualties are neither regretted nor lamented. To the contrary, they are approved and applauded within Hamas's internal publications and its propaganda aimed at Arab audiences. For example, in one Arabic article on the Qassam Brigades Web site, the group discusses rocket operations during the al-Furqan battle and cites the heroism of the Qassam Brigades personnel who conducted the attacks. Hamas subsequently declared that its February 3 report should not be interpreted as an apology for inflicting Israeli civilian casualties.

Indeed, rocket attacks against southern Israel were the Qassam Brigades' primary offensive operation during the Gaza conflict. Hamas planned for such strikes as an integral part of its war preparations, and its rocket system was well resourced and exercised prior to Israel's Operation Cast Lead (for details, see Policy Focus #97, "Hamas in Combat: The Military Performance of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement)".

Hamas rocket forces are controlled through a chain of command running from the top leadership down to individual firing units. Decisions about when to fire on Israel and what types of targets to bombard were made at a high level: by the military "cabinet" comprising senior Hamas leaders in Gaza, including the commander of the Qassam Brigades. Operational orders were then sent down to combat brigade and battalion firing units and their attached rocket units.

The Hamas rocket inventory contained some 1,500 unguided artillery rockets, including short-range "Qassam" types of 90, 107, and 115 millimeters and long-range 122-millimeter "Grad" rockets. The Grads are the most destructive rockets in the Hamas arsenal, capable of reaching 22 to 40 kilometers [13 - 25 miles].

During the Gaza conflict, the Qassam Brigades, acting as Hamas's military arm, launched some 600 rockets against Israel. This was high-trajectory fire by inherently inaccurate weapons, covering a broad swath of southern Israel. Targets included the major cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Beersheba (combined population 850,000), as well as numerous smaller towns and settlements. Hamas has boasted that more than one million Israelis live within range of its rockets. The Qassam Brigades Web site recorded 147 Grad launches against cities and towns during the conflict, with the following distribution:

  • The "occupied" city of Ashkelon: 57
  • The "occupied" city of Ashdod: 41
  • The "occupied" city of Beersheba: 25
  • The "usurped" town of Netivot: 17
  • "Usurped Azata": 4
  • "Eshkol": 3

In addition, an estimated 400 Qassam-type rockets were fired at Israeli targets closer to Gaza, including "usurped" Sderot. On the same page on its Web site, Hamas claims to have fired a total of 213 Grads during the conflict; in other words, nearly 70 percent were aimed at civilian population centers (i.e., the 147 launches mentioned above). The highest number of Grad strikes claimed against a military target was 26 at the "Ofakim military base."

The Qassam Brigades considers its bombardment of large population centers deep within Israel as one of its major accomplishments of the war. Its Web site trumpets the breaking of the 40-kilometer range barrier and the shelling of Beersheba as major achievements. And the January 2009 issue of Filasteen al-Muslima includes a chronology of events during the al-Furqan conflict that lists rocket activity, including the following:

December 28, 2008: "The Qassam Brigades and the resistance factions continue to launch rockets at Israeli towns and settlements."

December 30, 2008: "Al-Qassam Brigades bombing, Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and 'Sederot,' and the settlements 'Ofakim,' 'Kiryat Gat,' and 'Kiryat Malachi.'"

January 1, 2009: "Al-Qassam Brigades bombed the Zionist military air base 'Ansrim' [Hatserim?] and the ports of Ashdod and Ashkelon."

January 2, 2009: "Al-Qassam Brigades and resistance groups bombard Ashkelon and other Zionist towns and settlements, which led to the wounding of four Zionists."

The chronology also contains a number of other entries describing attacks on "Zionist" cities, towns, and settlements and attributing them to unspecified "resistance" factions or groups. These strikes were probably conducted at least in part by the Qassam Brigades.

Hamas's War against Israel

Attacks on civilian targets are in keeping with Hamas's concept of war against Israel. Hamas views the war in both Palestinian [sic] nationalist and Islamist terms. Not only is it a war of liberation for all of Palestine, fought against the "occupiers" or "usurpers," it is also a jihad. Qassam Brigades personnel killed in action are described as having been on "Jihad Missions," and the group uses the slogan "It is a Jihad, victory or martyrdom" on its pubic statements. In a recent interview on the Brigades Web site, a spokesman stated, "We have prepared previously and we are still preparing for Jihad against the enemies of God".

When addressing its internal membership and Arab audiences, Hamas frequently invokes "resistance" as a principal means of achieving its goals. For example, in a January 22, 2010, speech, senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, stated, "Hamas will keep rejecting the 'occupation' and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist entity. Priority will remain building and developing the resistance." Many observers tend to dismiss such rhetoric as mere posturing; but that is far too easy a rationalization. Resistance and Jihad are mutually reinforcing concepts, and Hamas uses them to legitimize acts of violence against civilian occupiers, including rocket attacks and terrorism. These are essentially offensive, not defensive, concepts — the usurped land must be fought for, and the usurpers driven from it.


Hamas targeting of civilians is not an Israeli fabrication — the group has used its own elaborate media networks to publicize and praise rocket operations throughout the conflict. Hamas views attacks on civilians as legitimate, appropriate, effective, and even heroic. Such strikes are fundamental to its operations — part of the Hamas way of war.

It is primarily because Hamas's weapons are limited in accuracy and destructive power that more civilians are not killed and wounded. Hamas is working hard to address these limitations, however, through the acquisition of more-effective and longer-range rockets; as recently as January 15, 2010, Mashal threatened to turn Israel into a cemetery once the next round of major hostilities erupts. Such ambitions should be remembered as Western leaders evaluate Hamas's conduct of war and consider their positions toward the group.

[ Published: March 4, 2010 / Reprinted from Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 25, 2010 ]

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