Jul 10, 2014 | 09:13 GMT

5 mins read

Examining Hamas' Rockets

(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Rocket strikes from Gaza into the heart of Israel, alarming as they may seem for the inhabitants of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Hadera, are political tactics, not military tactics. Of course, the Israelis' sense of insecurity is well-founded; now that Hamas is using Fajr-5 rockets, which have a longer range than the ones militants used to lob over the border, nearly all of Israel's densely populated cities are at risk of attack.

Hamas can fire only as many rockets as it has, however, and its stockpiles must be replenished, a cumbersome process that relies on smuggling operations and local manufacturing. As the rocket fire continues, Hamas will face considerable pressure from Israel, which means to destroy the existing stockpile and isolate Gaza from future deliveries.

Until 2012, Hamas had never used the Iranian Fajr-5 rocket, a fairly sophisticated projectile by Hamas' standards. The group primarily employed Grad and Qassam rockets and derivatives of the Fajr-3, but these munitions could travel only some 45 kilometers (28 miles). So while Hamas could strike the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba, it could not strike as far as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

The Fajr-5 Rocket

The Fajr-5 Rocket

With a range of about 75 kilometers, the Fajr-5 can reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Dimona. That Hamas has the means to hit Israel's major cities understandably concerns the Israelis. The obvious psychological effects aside, the Fajr-5, unlike shorter-range rockets, can disrupt economic activity if residents are constantly seeking shelter when rocket sirens sound.

The Khaibar-1 Rocket

The Khaibar-1 Rocket

This was probably Hamas' intent all along. Fajr-5s do not confer military superiority. In fact, they are not even precision weapons; they are meant to be fired as large volleys at a general area. How Hamas launches them — from improvised rails rather than integrated artillery systems — makes them even less accurate. The group often fires them without attaching a warhead, which sacrifices their potency for range.

Ranges of Hamas' Rockets

Ranges of Hamas' Rockets

It is little surprise, then, that the rockets have proved ineffective at inflicting casualties. During Operation Cast Lead (2008) and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), more than 1,400 rockets were fired into Israel but killed only six Israelis.

What differentiates the current rocket campaign from previous ones is Hamas' use of the Syrian Khaibar-1 rocket, which has a range as far as 160 kilometers. With this rocket, which was fired from Gaza for the first time ever July 8, Hamas could nearly reach Haifa in northern Israel. However, it is even less accurate than the Fajr-5 because it depends on a cruder form of stabilization.

Smuggling and Construction

Whatever Hamas' intentions for choosing these rockets, several factors will prevent the group from using them too much. First, it is unclear whether Gaza can actually construct them. The solid-fuel rocket engine required to propel them is particularly difficult to produce. Imperfections in casting the rocket fuel lead to uneven burn rates inside the rocket engine, a problem that can throw off the rocket's trajectory and even make it explode during launch. The larger the rocket, the more difficult it is to cast the rocket fuel, so the problem becomes more pronounced with the Fajr-5 and Khaibar-1. Even state actors with extensive and well-funded rocket development programs have struggled with the construction of solid-fuel rocket engines, and Syria, for example, still depends on Iran for its expertise in solid-fuel rocket construction. For its part, Iran initially had to depend on Chinese assistance to develop this expertise.

Apart from the solid rocket fuel engine, the construction of critical parts, such as exhaust nozzles, is also likely beyond the capabilities of Gaza workshops.

What Hamas cannot produce independently must be smuggled into Gaza. Typically Tehran is Gaza's biggest benefactor in this regard. Iran has been smuggling these kinds of rockets into Gaza through Sudan and Sinai. In fact, the Khaibar-1 used in the July 8 attack most likely made its way into Gaza after being flown from Syria to Iran, after which it would have been shipped to Sudan and moved through Sinai. This fits a pattern; in March, Israeli security forces intercepted Khaibar-1s in the Red Sea, and Fajr-5s likewise have been interdicted along these routes, including when Israel bombed a Sudanese factory.

The sheer size and weight of the rockets complicate their transportation. The Fajr-5 weighs 900 kilograms (just shy of a ton) and stands at 6 meters tall, so it must be lifted mechanically and moved by vehicle. This significantly increases the risk of detection during smuggling operations through tunnels and during transport within Gaza. The rockets also necessitate pre-positioned camouflaged launching sites. (Whereas smaller, shorter-range rockets are often launched from ad hoc positions, larger ones are launched from stationary positions, which are easily targeted by Israeli forces.)

Notably, several sources suggest Hamas does construct its own derivative of the Fajr-5, which it calls the M-75. However, Hamas is most likely doing so with Iranian-supplied parts, making this construction process more akin to final assembly than independent manufacturing. Thus, Hamas would still have to rely on its smuggling routes to import its wares from Iran.  

Even though the larger rockets may be more complicated to deploy, the effect they provide in raising alarm across Israel is strategically important. To maintain that strategic benefit, however, reserves of these types of rockets will have to be kept secure, and a continued supply of critical components or complete rocket systems will need to be guaranteed. This puts considerable pressure on militants in Gaza who are responsible for the tactical application of these systems and the foreign parties that supply Gaza with advanced weaponry. Israel has managed to intercept some of the deliveries on their way to Gaza, but some have obviously made it through, and as long as they continue to enter Gaza, Hamas will continue to fire them, which of course will prompt more Israeli responses.

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