Israeli Defense minister Shaul Mofaz dubbed them a “serious threat to the security of Israel,” while the western press has called them variously the “wild card of the Middle East” (CNN) or the “homemade rockets that may change the Middle East” (Time). For a weapon that didn’t claim a fatality until June 28 of this year, the Qassam rockets have gained widespread notoriety.
Qassam rockets are primitive homemade rockets developed by Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedin Al Qassam brigades, during the Aqsa Intifada. In this period, according to Israeli army estimates, the rockets have gone from the early model, the Qassam I, with a range of about three km, to the newest, the Qassam III, that has a range of around 10 km. None of the models have guidance systems, and the explosives are made, according to Hamas’ website and someone calling himself Abu Islam, using a combination of common chemicals, fertilizers and widely available cleaning agents.
The use of these rockets has nevertheless ignited a debate among Palestinians, mainly because of the harsh Israeli reprisals. The day after two Israelis were killed on June 28, the Israeli army invaded Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip from where many rockets have been launched, and didn’t leave until August 5. In that time, more than 20 houses were demolished, according to a statement from the Ministry of Housing and Public Works issued a week before the siege ended, another 200 were damaged, and the town lost some $43 million in lost revenue from damage to the town’s infrastructure and agricultural production. At least 17 people were killed during the siege and more than 160 were wounded.
The debate is between those who believe the resistance should be fought using all available means regardless of the ramifications, which they consider part of the “price of liberation,” and those who consider the firing of these rockets a further burden on people and that the focus should be strictly on military targets within the 1967 borders, given that not only has this won consensus among the various factions, it is also not met with criticism from the international community.
Beit Hanoun residents themselves, so often at the end of Israeli incursions, are fully representative of this debate. Ayman Radi, 22, a university student at Al Azhar University, said the Israeli army punishes them with or without reason. Therefore, he concluded, “we should strike at them whenever we can and wherever they are.”
Fifty-six-year-old shop owner, Fouad Obeid, sees things differently. “The rockets have caused serious damage to us, our homes and our crops. They have contributed to turning Beit Hanoun into an area of continuous Israeli operations.” Obeid said the damage the rockets caused to the Israeli town of Sderot, where many of the Qassam rockets fall, are minimal compared to the losses and damage inflicted upon Palestinians.
On July 8, the debate reached the Legislative Council, where Parliament Speaker Rawhi Fatouh commissioned a parliamentary committee to discuss what he called the “proper tools and places for the resistance.” The various factions and armed groups were invited to submit their opinions.
The final report on July 15 reflected the sharp differences of opinion between the various members of the committee. All agreed upon the legal right to resist the occupation of Palestinian land taken in 1967, but beyond that no clear conclusion was reached in terms of the use of Qassam rockets.
Head of the PLC’s Political Committee, Ziad Abu Amr, was one of the people the committee canvassed for opinions.
“Some operations and methods of resistance must be reconsidered in terms of their usefulness, their impact on our people and in a way that takes into consideration the higher interests of our homeland and people.” Abu Amr, who wanted to keep his report to the committee confidential, told the Palestine Report, “This should be what guides the actions and methods of the Palestinian resistance.”
Hamas, according to one member of the commission who requested anonymity, would extend no guarantees that it would cease the use of the rockets. On the contrary, the movement’s spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, was adamant that Hamas would continue to fire rockets as long as Israeli operations continue.
“We will not accept any Palestinian or Arab initiative in this regard in light of the escalating aggression against the Palestinian people,” he said. “The problem is not the resistance. The problem is the occupation.”
In short, Hamas’ justifications for continuing to fire Qassam rockets are as follows: A halt would be perceived as surrender to the Israeli logic of force and would encourage the Israeli army to escalate its operations against more Palestinian cities and villages. Second, the Israeli army does not need any justification to carry out its military operations -dozens of cities are being subjected to incursions for no reason. Third, Hamas says the fear in which Israelis live because of the rockets contradicts statements about their minimal effect. In addition, the Qassam rockets are considered the only weapons that can be deployed fast enough to respond to Israeli operations, and those who oppose their use have not proposed any alternative. Finally, the movement maintains it is sensitive to calls from, for example, the people of Beit Hanoun, and has, at times, temporarily halted the firing of Qassams during a lull in Israeli assassinations.
Some worry, however, that the resistance has become dangerously factionalized. Political analyst Talal Okal, a regular columnist in Al Ayyam newspaper, told PR that the use of the rockets and all other forms of resistance should be well studied so as to stay within an overall Palestinian strategy and not just to further the interests of individual groups. The concern that factional politics was gaining pre-eminence over national strategy was also voiced by writer and Al Ayyam journalist Ashraf Ajrami, who worried that the security malaise in the Palestinian arena has greatly impacted the methods of the resistance, which he believes no longer take into consideration people’s suffering.
“The Authority has allowed each faction to form its own armed militias, whose mission now is not only to resist the occupation but to attempt to impose their own set of values,” Ajrami told PR. “This development has negatively impacted various aspects of Palestinian life. Chaos has become the rule. It seems the PA has not realized that people are holding them responsible for everything that has happened, even if it is at the hands of opposition groups.”
Across the spectrum of opinions there is wide agreement, however, that the rockets are only used as a pretext by the Israeli army for their operations. Okal, for example, believes the Qassam rockets were not necessarily the reason for the invasion of Beit Hanoun, and points out that the cessation of suicide bombings did not halt Israeli incursions into Palestinian towns, house demolitions or assassinations.
Sufyan Hamad, an official with the Beit Hanoun municipality told PR that, “Israel does not need any excuses” to invade Palestinian towns.
“The people stand by the resistance,” he continued. “But resistance that does not cause them harm.”
This article was originally published August 11, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s Palestine Report, an interview with Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Council Hasan Khreisheh, who headed the parliamentary investigation into the cement corruption scandal, and we ask, is Israel America’s Catch-22?