No Palestinians or Israelis needed to die

in order to protect Israeli civilians from rocket fire out of Gaza


Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military assault against Hamas in Gaza, began on 27 December 2008 and continued until 18 January 2009.  During it, more than 1,400 Palestinians, including over 400 women and children, were killed by Israel.  13 Israelis also died, 4 in southern Israel (3 civilians and 1 soldier) by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza and 9 soldiers in Gaza itself, 4 by friendly fire.


Israel characterised its action as self-defence, with the objective of protecting Israeli citizens from Hamas rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza.  There was no alternative, Israel told the world.  Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, explained it like this in Sderot on 31 December, a few days after the assault was launched:


 “Last Saturday [27 December] at 11:30, Israel started its military operation in the Gaza Strip – there was no other alternative.  For eight years now, Israel has been under attack from the Gaza Strip and it has become worse. Hamas, which is an extreme Islamic organization, a terrorist organization, … has been targeting Israel on a daily basis.” [1]


Tzipi Livni told a big lie, when she said “there was no other alternative”.  There was an alternative, one that had operated effectively from 19 June to 4 November, without the spilling of any Palestinian or Israeli blood.  The alternative was the continuation of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which Israel brought to an end on 4 November by making a military incursion into Gaza, when the world was watching the election of Barack Obama.  During the period 19 June to 4 November, far from “targeting Israel on a daily basis”, Hamas hadn’t targeted Israel at all.


Much has been written in the past year about Israeli actions under Operation Cast Lead being “disproportionate”.  They were much worse than that.  They were totally unnecessary.  No Palestinians or Israelis needed to die in order to protect Israeli civilians from rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza.  What is more, Operation Cast Lead has been less effective in reducing firing from Gaza then the ceasefire.


Ceasefire facts

Under the ceasefire agreement, which was brokered by Egypt, in exchange for Hamas and other Palestinian groups stopping the firing of rockets and mortars out of Gaza, Israel undertook to lift its economic blockade of Gaza (which it never did) and cease military incursions into Gaza (which it did until 4 November).  The ceasefire came into effect on 19 June and was supposed to last for six months.


From 19 June until 4 November, only 19 rockets and 18 mortar shells were fired from Gaza, compared to 1,199 rockets and 1,072 mortar shells in 2008 up to 19 June.  This amounts to a reduction of 98% on average in the frequency of both rocket and mortar firing.


Prior to 19 June, on average 7.1 rockets were fired per day, compared with 0.14 per day between 19 June and 4 November.  The corresponding figures for mortars were 6.3 and 0.13.  Also, the effectiveness of the ceasefire improved as time went by and, in the whole of October, only 1 rocket and 1 mortar were fired out of Gaza.


What is more, none of these rockets or mortars was fired by Hamas.  Israeli Government spokesman, Mark Regev, confirmed this on More4 News on 9 January 2009.  You can watch him saying it on YouTube [2].  As a “partner for peace”, Hamas could not be faulted – it made a deal with Israel and stuck to it.  Not only that, it attempted to restrain other Palestinian groups from firing.  And it did so, despite the fact that Israel failed to honour its obligation under the ceasefire agreement to lift its economic blockade.


Facts indisputable

These facts about the ceasefire are indisputable.  They are publicly available in the reports of the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center [ITIC], which are regularly cited by the Israeli Government.


Thus, the figures for rocket and mortar firing in 2008, given above are taken from the ITIC report, Summary of rocket fire and mortar shelling in 2008 [3] (p7). 


Another ITIC report, The Six Months of the Lull Arrangement [4], describes the impact of the ceasefire.  It depicts the period between 19 June and 4 November as a “period of relative quiet”, saying:


“As of June 19, there was a marked reduction in the extent of attacks on the western Negev population. The lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire, carried out by rogue terrorist organizations, in some instance in defiance of Hamas (especially by Fatah and Al-Qaeda supporters). Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire. The IDF refrained from undertaking counterterrorism activities in the Gaza Strip, taking only routine defensive security measures along the border fence. Between June 19 and November 4, 20 rockets (three of which fell inside the Gaza Strip) and 18 mortar shells (five of which fell inside the Gaza Strip) were fired at Israel.” (paragraph 4)


The ceasefire wasn’t perfect.  Nevertheless, the threat to Israeli civilians from firing out of Gaza was greatly diminished compared with the period prior to the ceasefire.


Rocket-free sky in Sderot

Life for the people of Sderot improved dramatically compared with earlier in the year.  This is borne out by the following account taken from an article in the Toronto Star on 8 October 2008, entitled “Israeli town celebrates end to daily rocket: - Columnist - Israeli town celebrates end to daily rocket fireBesieged residents of Sderot relieved at quiet start to Yom Kippur, thanks to the ceasefire with Hamas[5].  It begins:


SDEROT, Israel–Young boys horsed around on their bicycles, families hurried to make last-minute purchases at the downtown supermarket, and food stands did a steady business in shawarma and beer.


Meanwhile, the October sun sparkled down from a blue and rocket-free sky.


If this seems like an unremarkable description of any Israeli town about to mark the holy day of Yom Kippur, it almost could be – except for that part about rockets.


Just a kilometre from the Gaza Strip, this southern Israeli town has been struck by an average of three missiles a day for each of the past seven years – and that is a long way from what most people would consider normal.


Lately, however, the cloudless firmament over Sderot has been mostly free of deadly ordnance, and the community is doing its best to resemble what for a long time it has singularly failed to be – a halfway normal town.


For seven years, local residents barely went out at all. But, late last June, under Egyptian mediation, the Israeli government reached a ceasefire agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.


Since then, with only a few violations, the rocket salvoes from Gaza have stopped.

So have the punitive Israeli military incursions into the neighbouring strip – attacks that had been a frequent and deadly feature of Palestinian existence prior to the laying down of arms in June.


Israel ends it

Israel brought this peaceful atmosphere in Sderot to an end on 4 November, when, for the first time since the ceasefire began on 19 June, it made a military incursion into Gaza and killed 7 members of Hamas.  Israel had now breached both of its obligations under the ceasefire agreement, having already failed to lift the economic blockade of Gaza, as promised.  In retaliation, Hamas resumed firing out of Gaza into Israel and ceased restraining other groups from doing likewise.


An Israeli Government with the security of its civilians as its top priority would have been extremely careful to avoid action that might disturb this ceasefire, which had been so successful in diminishing the threat to them.  It might even have taken action to bolster the ceasefire by, for example, easing its economic blockade as it was supposed to do under the ceasefire agreement.


Instead, the Israeli Government chose to break the ceasefire agreement, knowing that it was almost certain that Hamas would resume firing in retaliation.  Had the Israeli Government continued to refrain from military incursions into Gaza, as it had done from 19 June, there is no doubt that Hamas would have maintained its ceasefire indefinitely.


Of the breakdown of the ceasefire, the ITIC report says:


“On November 4 the IDF carried out a military action close to the border security fence on the Gazan side to prevent an abduction planned by Hamas, which had dug a tunnel under the fence to that purpose. Seven Hamas terrorist operatives were killed during the action. In retaliation, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations attacked Israel with a massive barrage of rockets.” (paragraph 4) [4]


Clearly, if Israeli forces hadn’t entered Gaza, there would have been no retaliation – and the population of the western Negev would have continued to be free from Hamas rocket fire.


Another ITIC report, Escalation in the Gaza Strip [6] justifies the Israeli incursion into Gaza by saying that the purpose of the tunnel was to abduct Israeli soldiers.  Even if this were true, there was no need for the IDF to enter Gaza, and risk the end of the ceasefire, in order to counter the threat.  It could have “refrained from undertaking counterterrorism activities in the Gaza Strip, taking only routine defensive security measures along the border fence”, as it did from 19 June to 4 November.


It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel chose to send the IDF into Gaza on 4 November, because it wanted a justification that could be sold to the world for Operation Cast Lead.  Prior to 4 November, such an assault could not have been justified as self-defence against Hamas rockets and mortars, since Hamas wasn’t firing any, and other groups were firing very few.  To justify such an assault, Hamas had to be firing some.   Is there any doubt that Israel chose to send the IDF into Gaza on 4 November in order to provide some?


Israeli Ambassador distorts

Senator David Norris described the effectiveness of the ceasefire and Israel’s part in bringing it to an end in a letter in the Irish Times on 23 November 2009 [7].  A reply by the Israeli Ambassador, Dr Zion Evrony, was published two days later [8].  About the ceasefire, he wrote:


With regard to Senator David Norris’ letter (November 23rd) seeking to blame Israel for the breakdown of the Hamas ‘lull’ in late 2008, the following facts prove that the firing at Israeli civilians never stopped: During the first part of the ‘lull’, from June 19th to November 4th, a total of 74 rockets and mortars landed in Israel from Gaza.”


The Ambassador’s figures are actually wrong: only 30 rockets and mortars “landed in Israel from Gaza” in that period, according to the ITIC (see above).  That is a minor point compared with his omission of the extraordinary facts that

(a) none of these rockets were fired by Hamas, which also sought to restrain other groups, and

(b) the frequency of firing was a fiftieth of what it was in 2008 prior to the ceasefire coming into operation – and that the frequency was declining as time went on, only 1 rocket and 1 mortar being fired in October.


The Ambassador is also less than comprehensive in his description of the breakdown of the ceasefire, saying:


“Three attempts to blow up the border fence were made by Hamas but were prevented by the IDF.  The most serious incident occurred on November 4th, when the IDF acted on intelligence that a tunnel was being dug from 250 metres inside the Gaza border as part of a plan to abduct another soldier. An IDF incursion to destroy the tunnel led to an exchange of fire with Hamas that left six IDF soldiers wounded and six Hamas dead.  Between November 5th and December 19th, when Hamas officially ended its ‘lull’, it fired 336 rockets and mortars into Israel.”


There he omits to mention that

(a) the IDF incursion into Gaza on 4 November broke the ceasefire agreement and triggered the resumption of rocket and mortar firing “in retaliation”, and

(b) if the IDF’s incursion had not happened, the number of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza between 4 November and 19 December would most likely have been less than half a dozen, rather than 336, and Hamas wouldn’t have fired any.


Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs distorts

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has devoted considerable effort to justifying its assault on Hamas as self-defence.  Its website contains a page giving detailed answers to an extensive range of “Frequently Asked Questions” on “The Operation in Gaza - Factual and Legal Aspects” [9].


In answering these questions, Israel is less than forthcoming about the ceasefire and the consequent reduction of rocket and mortar firing to a trickle – understandably so, since it might prompt people to ask why Israel brought this highly desirable state of affairs to an end.  It is mentioned only once, where Hamas is accused of “abusing the Tahadiya (the lull) to smuggle in vast quantities of weapons”.


The answer to the question:What was the result of Israel's efforts to end the rocket and terrorist attacks on its civilians through diplomatic channels?” says:


Neither Israel's diplomatic overtures, nor its pleas to the international community, nor sanctions imposed by numerous countries, were able to stop the rocket attacks.”


The successful diplomatic overture via Egypt to Hamas, which led to the ceasefire agreement and stopped all Hamas rocket attacks for a period of four and a half months, isn’t mentioned.


The answer to the question “What prompted Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead?” contains the following:


The frequency and intensity of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel increased dramatically - in 2008, nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars were fired at Israeli homes, schools, kindergartens, shops, clinics, factories and other civilian infrastructure. Israeli civilians were compelled to race to bomb shelters several times a day and lived in constant fear of where the next rockets would hit.”


It is true that over 3,000 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza during 2008 (though to say that they were fired at Israeli homes etc implies a targeting capability that Palestinian weapons don’t possess, unlike Israel’s).  It is also true that this was the highest total in any calendar year to date.


However, 2008 had another distinguishing feature: about 99% of the rocket and mortar firing took place in the seven and a half months before and after the period from 19 June to 4 November.  A mere 1% or so of the firing took place in that four and a half month period – thanks to Israel’s successful diplomatic overture to Hamas.


Return of near daily rockets

Hamas and other Palestinian groups continued firing rockets and mortars out of Gaza throughout Operation Cast Lead – and afterwards.  Here is a picture of life in Sderot in mid-March 2009 from a Christian Science Monitor report, entitled Israeli town copes with return of near daily rockets: in Sderot, Purim holiday fun masks stresses of rocket attacks from Gaza militants[10]


The very hour Chana Melul returned to Sderot with her three young boys, whom she'd taken on vacation up north to escape the front lines, the rockets were back. …


In the meantime, the violent volleys continue. Several times a week, Israel strikes at smuggling tunnels and the Palestinian militants in Gaza it says are responsible for launching rockets. Hamas and other groups such as Islamic Jihad send several rockets and short-range missiles into Israel on an almost daily basis.


So, the near rocket-free conditions, which Sderot enjoyed prior to Israel breaking the ceasefire on 4 November, were not restored by Operation Cast Lead.  Understandably, Israel hasn’t been complaining very loudly about this continued firing, since doing so would draw attention to the fact that its murderous assault failed to suppress the capability of Hamas and other groups to fire out of Gaza.


Cast Lead failure

The extent of the rocket and mortar firing from Gaza since Operation Cast Lead was revealed in an IDF statement of 24 November 2009, which said:


“Nearly 270 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel since the end of Operation Cast Lead on January 18th 2009, in comparison to over 3300 rockets and mortars fired in the year before the operation. Over the last month approximately 15 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip.” [11]


The name of the game here seems to be to give the impression that Operation Cast Lead was effective in reducing rocket and mortar firing from Gaza – from 3,300 in the year prior to the operation to 270 in the 10 months following it.


But, the success of Operation Cast Lead should be judged against the alternative method of reducing the rocket and mortar firing from Gaza – the ceasefire.  During it, the rate of firing was about 8 a month on average compared with 27 a month since the end of Operation Cast Lead.  And, in October 2008, the last month of the ceasefire, only 1 rocket and 1 mortar were fired from Gaza, compared with 15 in the month to 24 November 2009.  Hardly a resounding success – at a cost of more that 1,400 lives.



David Morrison

15 December 2009