Gaza militants have defied the Israeli ground invasion and have fired dozens of rockets across the border in the last 24 hours. Five Qassam rockets struck the town of Sderot causing one minor injury and another struck Ashdod but caused no known damage or casualties. A house in Ashkelon took a hit from a more powerful Grad rocket but there were no fatalities. 12 Qassam rockets hit the Sdot Negev area on Saturday; all landed in open fields and caused no injuries. The main impact of these strikes continues to be psychological, as it has been for the last seven years.
The Gaza Strip has been separated from Israel by a security barrier since 1996. In 2005 Israel withdrew its civilian and military presence according to its unilateral disengagement plan, but retained control over airspace and maritime access. The attacks began after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The rockets were the only way that Gaza Palestinians could continue to carry the war into Israel. After Hamas won control of Gaza in June 2007 elections, Israel imposed a blockade on the Strip and its 1.5 million inhabitants. They allowed only basic humanitarian items in and permitted no exports paralysing the economy. The Israeli government declared Gaza a "hostile entity" in response to continued rocket attacks, and said it would start cutting fuel imports. The reduction in fuel supplies and a chronic lack of spare parts has severely impacted sewage treatment, waste collection, water supply and medical facilities. Aid agencies said the situation had become a humanitarian crisis.
Gaza began launching Qassam rockets in 2001. As of February 2008, they have killed 13 people, mostly in the nearby border town of Sderot. There has been no effort at negotiation in that time. Israel refuses to talk to Gaza’s rulers because Hamas in turn refuses to acknowledge the Jewish state's right to exist, will not renounce violence and doesn’t adhere to previous peace agreements signed by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction. Nevertheless as recently as February 2008, Israel’s public attitude was that a large scale ground operation would not put an end to the rocket fire.
But as the frequency has increased, Israeli public pressure had been mounting on the government to stop the rockets. With an Israeli election and a less friendly US administration in the wings, the Israeli government finally believed the time was right to react. In the past week, IDF artillery bombs have killed more than 480 Palestinians and injured 3,000 in Gaza. In same period, four Israelis have been killed and 59 wounded in Hamas rocket attacks. The rockets remain the Palestinians most potent, albeit random, weapon of retaliation.
Qassam rockets are named for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’s military wing) which in turn was named for the 1930s Palestinian leader Mojahed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. Bombmakers supplied the first prototype in 2001 and a year later produced the Qassam 2, an improved version which attacked nearby Israeli settlements and towns. The rockets consist of a warhead, an engine and a tail segment. The warhead is filled with TNT and urea nitrate. They are fuelled by mixture of sugar and potassium nitrate (which is widely available as a fertiliser). Often they are crudely made explosives-packed pipes with metal fins welded onto the end. Qassam rockets are free-flying and lack any guidance system. As a result, they are notoriously inaccurate and many fail to even cross the border into Israel.
The rockets have a range of four to forty kilometres and spread their submunitions over a broad area. A large number remain unexploded and become defacto landmines. But they rarely cause any injuries, and they did not kill an Israeli until 28 June, 2004. The main success of the rockets has been psychological and has created an atmosphere of fear in all of the Southern Israeli border towns. The number of attacks has increased dramatically in recent years. By November, Israel had indicated it had lost patience: PM Ehud Olmert ominously told his audience "The question is not whether there will be a confrontation, but when it will take place, under what circumstances, and who will control these circumstances, who will dictate them, and who will know to exploit the time from the beginning of the ceasefire until the moment of confrontation in the best possible way.” Israel has begun the confrontation but the question will be whether it can control the consequences.