Eleven days in May: 3. Hamas fires rockets towards Jerusalem
On 20th May 2021 a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel, marking the end of an 11-day war that cost hundreds of lives. We spoke to three Palestinians and three Israelis about the brief and bloody conflict to see why it arose, how the fighting unfolded and what happened next
20th May 2021 (Taken from: #43)
This is the third interview in a six-part series. See the other interviews here.
When its deadline to withdraw from Sheikh Jarrah and Al Aqsa was not met on 10th May, Hamas opened fire on Jerusalem and southern Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system kicked in to action, and was pushed to the limit by a surprising, and almost overwhelming, barrage of weaponry.
Dr Michael Milshtein
Former head of Palestinian affairs, IDF military intelligence
After 25 years working on the Palestine desk for Israeli military intelligence, there is little that surprises Dr Michael Milshtein during the periodic cycles of violence that break out. But when Hamas fired rockets towards Jerusalem on 10th May he was shocked by the scale of the bombardment. “All their tunnels [from Gaza into Israel] were blocked; all the [military] capabilities Hamas tried to build over the years, they all failed,” he says. “The only [effective] tool of Hamas was their rockets. And we understood something very important. Although there have been a lot of problems in the R&D of Hamas, they still succeeded in launching hundreds of long-range rockets within one or two minutes. This has never happened before.”
During the first week of the conflict Hamas and several smaller radical groups fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel, including new long-range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Nearly 500 were fired in the first 24 hours alone, a surprisingly large number given that Israel and Egypt tightly control what goes in and out of Gaza. It is thought that most of the capability has come from repurposing previously fired Israeli missiles that had failed to explode and using know-how and smuggled parts from Iran. “If it wasn’t for Iran’s support, we would not have had these capabilities,” said Yehiyeh Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, at a gathering in 2019.
The bombardment saw the deployment of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, which has been intercepting missiles and artillery since 2011. Iron Dome batteries intercept around 90 percent of rockets fired; Hamas tried to overwhelm the system and the ten percent that got through were enough to cause widespread panic on the ground. The rockets killed 12 people, including two children and a soldier. Israel responded with its own bombardment with more sophisticated weaponry. By the end of the first week of fighting 200 people had been killed in Gaza, including 59 children.
Milshtein, who is now head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that the bombardment pushed the Iron Dome to its limits, demonstrating why the system, on which the US has spent $1.6 billion to date, requires a fresh injection of funds. “You need Uncle Sam to open his pocket,” he says. “[US president] Biden said during the operation that we’re standing behind Israel, and, of course, we will give Israel all the money they need in order to complete all the gaps in the defence array. We need many more batteries of the Iron Dome. I think maybe even 10 or 15 more batteries.” This would more than double Israel’s current capacity.
Equally important for Milshtein is understanding the logic behind the confrontation. He believes that the last major conflict, in 2014, came about due to a series of miscalculations that pushed both sides into a war neither wanted. This conflict, he believes, was different. Al Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah were merely a pretext. “Yehiyeh Sinwar planned this and only needed the right moment, the golden hour from his point of view, to implement what he wanted to do,” he says. “For Sinwar it was about strengthening the position of Hamas in the Palestinian arena.” He points to the end of April as a key moment. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, had cancelled presidential and parliamentary elections. The PA is dominated by Fatah, a nationalist group co-founded by Yasser Arafat in 1959. Hamas, their fierce political rival, was likely to gain in any election. “From Hamas’s point of view, that [the election] was the chance to jump into the status of national leadership,” says Milshtein.
Hamas’s bombardment of Israel failed to inflame Palestinians in the West Bank, which Milshtein believes was one of the group’s key aims, part of its ambition of opening multiple fronts against Israel. But instead Israel was destabilised by internal forces, when communal violence broke out between Jews and Arabs in its cities. “Most of the West Bank continued with life,” explains Milshtein. “What happened inside the Arab sector in Israel? Violent riots, especially in Lod. And I think that even surprised Yehiyeh Sinwar because he didn’t plan to inflame the Arab sector in Israel. At the end of the day, he found out: ‘Woah, it’s a great strategic measure.’ And in the next campaign against Israel, he will try to copy this pattern. The atmosphere between Jews and Arabs inside Israel is very tense. You need only a spark in order [for there] to be another explosion.”
Hamas succeeded in launching hundreds of long-range rockets within one or two minutes. This has not happened before”
That explosion, Milshtein believes, may come sooner than many think. With the Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace process virtually dead, many are now considering the so-called ‘one-state solution’, or “the one-state nightmare” as Milshtein calls it. “I think that we are getting very close to the point of no return,” he says. “The mixture between populations in geography, demography and economic infrastructure from day to day is growing. And I’m really afraid that with no plans to do so, the two people will find themselves in one [de facto] entity between the sea and the river. And it’s really going to be my nightmare. It’s going to be like the Balkans.”
Much will depend on how Hamas deals with its new-found status. “I assess that the next campaign in Gaza is very close because I think Yehiyeh Sinwar’s expectations are getting bigger,” he says. “He’s not satisfied with what he got. He wants more. And these dynamics will lead us both to a clash. And I only hope that this time we will be clever enough to initiate it and not be reactive, like in May.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.