Interpreting Gaza’s desperate rocket strategy

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

With their dream of creating an independent state still unfulfilled, Palestinians in Gaza are resorting to a survival strategy as Israel remains a foe that has teeth and feels emboldened by deepening ties with Arabs, writes Salah Nasrawi

Interpreting Gaza s desperate rocket strategy
A bulldozer clears the rubble of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike (photo: AFP)


The escalation in Gaza and the intensified Israeli crackdown on Palestinians across the West Bank earlier this month raised a fundamental question about the future of the Palestinian struggle for liberation from the Israeli occupation and the achievement of national self-determination.

The latest outbreak of hostilities has seen the gravest escalation since last year’s Israeli aggression that killed, maimed, or displaced thousands of civilians, destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and infrastructure, and severely disrupted basic services.

The flare-up in Gaza is part of the cycle of confrontations between Israel and the Palestinian militant groups since the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) took control of the Gaza Strip in 2006. Since then, dozens of skirmishes, cross-border attacks, and major Israeli offensives have been carried out, usually ending with a mediated truce.   

What has become routine fighting between Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza with Israel has transformed the dynamics of the Palestinian struggle into a “David and Goliath-type” contest where a smaller and weaker force faces a mighty adversary.

The new strategy has brought into focus the ways in which the Gaza situation has reshaped the architecture of the Palestinian national movement, whose goal has long been the liberation of the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Initially, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) resorted to a militant strategy based on guerrilla warfare and predicated on the assumption that Israel had superior military power but could be beaten by prolonged “people’s” warfare.

The policy was later changed to a more moderate strategy that adopted negotiations with Israel but still clung to the goal of liberation and the return of all displaced Palestinians to their homes in territory occupied by Israel.

The turning point came in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, officially known as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, under which the PLO abandoned armed struggle and agreed to seek a negotiated settlement with Israel that would pave the way for Palestinian statehood.

The failure of the Oslo deal to deliver what the Palestinians had expected, primarily a prelude to an independent Palestinian entity, underlined that unfavourable terms for the Palestinians would not provide the foundations for a workable and just peace agreement.

The accords were wrecked by Israel’s bad faith because, in the words of Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, Israel “used them as a cover for its colonial project in Palestine,” or as prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said said, as a tool to ensure “Israel’s security, with nothing for the Palestinians’ security from Israel’s incursions.”

Gradually the document turned out to be “an instrument of Palestinian surrender” when president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, already weakened, finally decided to abandon armed resistance and transform the Palestinian national liberation movement into a policeman guarding Israel.

The “resistance vacuum” was soon filled by Hamas, which developed its military capabilities and took the initiative to use Gaza, falling completely under its control, as a platform for its struggle against Israel as well for vying for influence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As many Palestinians remain disgruntled with the humiliation of the continuous Israeli occupation and Israel’s policy of expansion, it has made it easier for them to identify with Hamas or any other resistance group, and this has ended up escalating the situation.

While Hamas supporters were still committed to fighting Israel using any methods, including suicide attacks, the group itself capitalised on its stronghold in Gaza to resort to “rocket warfare” by using simple steel-pipe artillery projectiles developed and deployed by the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, its military arm, to attack Israel.

While Hamas has remained committed to its 1988 covenant that advocates an all-out jihad to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine,” the strategy of firing missiles ushered in a new era in Palestinian national struggle when the conflict was restricted to routine escalation in Gaza and a few protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Palestinian struggle was transformed from an “armed struggle” and a “people’s war to liberate the whole of Palestine” into a limited series of rocket attacks in the hope that each standoff would rekindle the spirit of resistance and overcome Palestinian vulnerability.

In return, Israel developed its own strategy to confront the Gaza flare-ups, using artillery barrages and air strikes designed to inflict horrendous numbers of deaths and the total destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza.

The “Dahiya doctrine,” named after a Beirut neighbourhood badly damaged by Israeli airstrikes in 2006, is an Israeli military strategy of asymmetric warfare aimed at neutralising Hamas and its allies in Gaza by hitting them hard and then gaining a few years of quiet.

Both the Palestinian and the Israel strategies are defined by the interplay of new regional geopolitical dynamics and the balance of power in the region. The recent wave of normalisation agreements between Israel and certain Arab states has rendered resolving the conflict through a peace deal entirely divorced from Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians.

The rejection by many Arab countries of Iran’s role and its support for Hamas and of the Islamic Jihad Movement has also created a context in which Israel can have significant autonomy to pursue its goals in crushing the Palestinian resistance.

Israel’s calculation vis-á-vis the conflict is that the Arab nations are today divided, weak, and too busy tackling their own problems to be able to shore up support for the Palestinians and reject a status quo that Israel works relentlessly to enforce upon the region.

Coupled with this have been efforts by Israel’s friends in the West to make its dominance over the Palestinians a fait accompli and to do whatever it takes for Israel’s Gaza strategy not to come under scrutiny, as happens when the UN Security Council fails to regret Israel’s aggression in Gaza and condemn its siege of the Strip.

Yet, while it would be true to say that the world appears to have largely washed its hands of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians do not seem to be exhausted by their resistance. They may be desperate for peace, but they have not and will not sign a surrender deal.

As the successive confrontations in Gaza have showed, Israel has not been able to put an end to the resilience of the Gazans. No Gazan has been found fleeing the Strip, as the world has seen in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, and each round of the fighting has shown that Israel’s current strategy is a failure.

Another indicator is the fact that the normalisation of ties between some Arab countries and Israel has not changed the fact that the conflict with Israel will remain existential to the Palestinians who do not want to get trapped into a bogus settlement.    

As Israel will remain stuck with limited options, the likely course for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militants in Gaza will be to continue with their rocket strategy, which a closer look indicates is viable on both the tactical and strategic levels to keep the flame of resistance alive despite its heavy human cost.

With its limitations now being clear, Israel will not be able to panic the Gazans into surrender either by forcing the remaining Palestinians in the West Bank to accept the status quo or by refusing to give all the Palestinians their statehood.

Instead, it will have to live with a cycle of flare-ups in Gaza every few months for the coming years, a reminder of the danger of no solution to the Palestinian question.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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