Horrific violence continues to spread across Gaza this week, where an Israeli air and ground offensive against the Islamist group Hamas has killed more than 700 people — most of them Palestinian civilians, and many of them children. Both the United Nations and the US, Israel's main ally, have called for a cease-fire, though neither side has shown any sign of relenting.
This month's fighting marks the third time in five years that Israel has launched a large-scale military operation in Gaza, a small enclave on the Mediterranean that Hamas has governed since winning a majority in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. The latest conflict was sparked by the killing of three teenage Israeli boys and, later, a Palestinian boy who was burned to death in an apparent act of revenge. The murders set off a series of finger-pointing and rocket fire, culminating in a major Israeli air offensive on July 8th. Ten days later, Israel launched a ground invasion aimed at crippling the vast network of underground tunnels that Hamas uses for weapon storage and to launch attacks.
Israel enjoys a major military advantage over Hamas and its Gaza allies — bolstered in part by $3.1 billion in US aid last year — and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has unleashed an attack that combines elements of its army, navy, and air force. But experts say Israel's military superiority is mitigated somewhat in Gaza, where Hamas' urban warfare tactics have taken a toll on Israeli forces.
"It's irrelevant because you're fighting an irregular war."
"It's irrelevant because you're fighting an irregular war," Tony Cordesman, a strategy and defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says of Israel's military prowess. Gaza is among the most densely populated areas in the world, and Israel has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. The Islamist militants are intimately familiar with the terrain, and have peppered it with booby traps, improvised explosive devices, and snipers. So far, the group has killed 32 Israeli soldiers — far fewer than the 718 Palestinians who have died, but nearly triple the death toll Israel suffered during the Gaza invasion in 2008–2009.
The centerpiece of Israel's defense apparatus is Iron Dome, a missile defense system capable of intercepting and destroying rockets launched from up to 40 miles away. The system was developed with substantial assistance from the US and first deployed in 2012. Israeli officials have claimed it can destroy 90 percent of all incoming rockets, though those figures have been hotly contested by weapons experts, with some putting Iron Dome's success rate at just 5 percent. On Tuesday, Democratic senators called for $225 million in federal funding for Iron Dome as part of an emergency spending bill.
Israeli officials say the system has intercepted more than 80 percent of the incoming rockets it targeted during this conflict, with most others missing their targets or landing in empty space. But Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Hamas reaps benefits from showering Israel with missiles, even if they don't hit their targets.
"School gets closed, life gets disrupted, it puts people under a lot of strain."
"Their ability to disrupt life in Israel is big, because every time they fire a volley of rockets, sirens go off and everyone runs for shelter," White says. "School gets closed, life gets disrupted, it puts people under a lot of strain."
The strikes could have economic effects as well, as evidenced by this week's decision from the Federal Aviation Authority to halt all flights into Israel after a long-range missile landed near Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv — a decision that White describes as "a huge development." (The ban was lifted late Wednesday, after the FAA said it was satisfied with safety measures that Israel implemented.)
Hamas also has plenty of rockets to spare. The size and range of its arsenal have improved dramatically over the past decade, with Israel estimating that the group and its allies have more than 10,000 rockets at their disposal. Some are smuggled in from Iran and other Hamas allies in the region; others are manufactured domestically, constructed from water pipes and filled with materials like fertilizer and aluminum powder. The R-160 has a range of 100 miles, while the recently debuted J-80 can reach targets 50 miles away — a major improvement over the short-range Qassam rockets that Hamas relied upon years ago.
"the war for global opinion is simply not a function of how many rockets hit an Israeli target."
There are signs that Hamas is exploring newer technologies, as well. Last week, an Israeli Patriot missile shot down a Hamas drone over the city of Ashdod, marking the first time that the group has deployed unmanned aerial vehicles. Experts say the drone shot down this month was comparatively primitive in its capabilities, though it underscores Hamas' ongoing drone development — "a taste of things to come," as White describes it.
But on a larger scale, experts say this conflict has less to do with military wins and losses than it does with controlling media narratives, as each side looks to cast the other as the villain.
"Hamas is fighting a political war," Cordesman says. "Israel is trying to respond militarily and use its edge, but it's also fighting a political war, and the war for global opinion is simply not a function of how many rockets hit an Israeli target."