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analysisIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

How serious is the rocket threat from Samaria?

Six times in the last three months, Palestinian terror groups have tried to launch rockets against Jewish communities in Samaria. Generals Uzi Dayan and Gadi Shamni, and former head of Israel's Homa Missile Defense Organization Uzi Rubin, strongly recommend to "kill it off at birth."

A rocket purportedly fired from Jenin, in northern Samaria, on June 26, 2023. Source: Twitter.
A rocket purportedly fired from Jenin, in northern Samaria, on June 26, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

Uzi Rubin is the winner of the Israel Defense Prize. In the various positions he has held in Israel’s defense establishment, he has been required to contend with the grave threats posed by ballistic missiles armed with heavy warheads and with ranges of hundreds of miles. He suggests that the Israel Defense Forces and the country’s defense establishment would do well not to take lightly the few homemade rockets, some of which malfunctioned, that Palestinians have in recent months tried to launch towards various Jewish communities bordering on northern Samaria and the adjacent Gilboa mountain range.

“That is precisely how it began in Gaza,” recalled the former head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization (which was responsible for the development of the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system), who currently serves as an expert on missile defense at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). According to Rubin, there is a striking similarity between what is occurring now in Judea and Samaria and what happened in the Gaza Strip back from 2000 to 2002.

“There too it began with shoddy homemade production, in garages and workshops. The locals in Gaza removed explosives from mines, mixed together makeshift explosives, which initially blew up on launch, and worked with hollow pipes from whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Gradually, they began to improve their capabilities and performance. The first Hamas rocket was launched at the town of Sderot on April 16, 2001,” he said.

The initial manufacture was improvised using any basic materials locally available. The rockets were named “Qassam” after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the radical Muslim preacher who led the local struggle against both the colonial mandate forces in the Levant in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the fierce opposition to the nascent Zionist movement at the time. Israel encountered much difficulty in its efforts to contend with the initial Qassam rockets, as they were small, lightweight (up to 11 pounds) and at the time more similar to shoulder-fired man-portable rockets, readily transported from place to place.

“Now a similar process might well be taking place in Judea and Samaria,” warned Rubin. “Though it might currently appear to be extremely insignificant and not threatening, that is exactly how it began [in Gaza] too. We need to be extremely alert and to kill it off at birth,” he added. “Just look and see to what dimensions the rocket threat in the south has developed,” he said.

In contrast to many of the shooting and ramming attacks in recent years, the domestic manufacture of rockets in Judea and Samaria, mainly in the Jenin and northern Samaria areas, the IDF categorizes as organized and guided terrorism. The main actors encouraging and funding the attempt to develop a credible rocket threat against Israel, not only from the Gaza Strip but also from Judea and Samaria, are Iran and Hamas. For the moment, they are failing, but are far from giving up.

The know-how, according to military experts, comes from the Gaza Strip: Somebody is taking the trouble to equip the terrorists in northern Samaria with the right technology, and if need be also to refer them to relevant websites. According to the IDF, there is an abundance of motivation, perhaps at its highest level ever, and this is also true of the terrorists’ ability to conceal these efforts. Judea and Samaria covers an area 16 times larger than the Gaza Strip and encompasses a broad variety of terrain. The homemade rockets that the Palestinians are now producing in Judea and Samaria are easily transportable and can be readily smuggled and concealed in a variety of hiding places. Only last week an attempt to smuggle arms was thwarted in the northern Jordan Valley area, the specific details of which are still subject to a gag order.

A declaration of intentions

Hamas and Iran don’t even bother to hide their intentions. Senior Hamas figure Saleh al-Arouri, who is responsible for the organization’s military activity in Judea and Samaria, has expressed a hope in the past that “the resistance in Judea & Samaria will succeed in obtaining rockets.” And when asked if this is actually possible, he responded that “In the Gaza Strip, rockets were manufactured under blockade, so in the West Bank too, we will be able to overcome all the difficulties and will succeed in producing rockets.”

Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also threatened last summer to turn Judea and Samaria into a base for launching rockets at Israel. “Just as Gaza is armed,” explained Salami, “so too we can arm the West Bank… There is no difference between these two areas of land. Nowadays, it is much easier to obtain weapons than in the past, and it is impossible to limit the transfer of technology.”

It is likely no coincidence that the first public exposure of an attempt to manufacture both rockets and launchers in Judea and Samaria in recent years was connected to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization that operates under Iranian patronage. This information was exposed by the head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), Ronen Bar. Bar disclosed that Tareq az-Aladin, a senior PIJ operative in Judea and Samaria who was targeted by Israel, tried to establish a network for launching improvised rockets from the territory and that at least one out of 20 cells that Aladin controlled was already in the process of manufacturing rockets and launchers. It is now known that one of the targets was the town of Afula.

In the last three months alone, six Palestinian announcements have been made regarding rocket launches from the Jenin area towards nearby Israeli communities, mainly Ram-On and Shaked. In all these instances, an organization calling itself the “El’Ayash Battalions,” which is associated with Hamas, claimed responsibility. In five of these incidents rocket remains were found. All involved primitive, improvised rockets with limited capability, but Israel regards this chain of events as a declaration of intent.

The first documented incident occurred on May 8, when a rocket was fired from the village of Nazlet Zeid in northern Samaria towards the Jewish community of Shaked. The rocket exploded on launch. On Jerusalem Day this year, the Shin Bet located a rocket in Beit Hanina in northern Jerusalem and arrested a Palestinian terrorist from the village of Ajjul. According to security forces, he was planning to launch it at Israelis celebrating the annual Flag Parade. In late June, the El’Ayash Battalions failed in their attempt to launch another rocket from Jenin towards Ram-On, and on July 10 the organization claimed it had launched two rockets from Jenin at Shaked in northern Samaria. In this case, two launchers were found, along with the remains of rockets that had actually been fired but which failed to reach their destination. On the following day, an improvised rocket was fired from the village of Faqu’a near kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa, but it exploded in the air, failing to cause any damage.

This recent spate of rocket launches comes after 15 years of quiet in Judea and Samaria in relation to rocket fire. Prior to this, the history of rockets in Judea and Samaria was divided into two main periods: The initial years following the Six-Day War and the period of the Second Intifada. Then, unlike today, this involved slightly more professional rockets, usually 107 mm rockets with a range of five to six miles. Some of them were of Chinese manufacture and some were smuggled here from Jordan.

Touch and go

The first rockets were fired after the Six-Day War. On Aug. 26, 1969, three of them were launched at Jerusalem. One landed near Ganei Yehuda, the second in the Katamon neighborhood and the third in an abandoned field. The rockets were launched from Beit Sahour, and following sweeps conducted in the area a further 16 launchers were found, ready for operation. In December 1970, two rockets launched from the vicinity of the village of Batir hit a house on Hatayasim Street in Jerusalem. Four women who were living in the building at the time, were miraculously saved, but then in July 1971, Israel’s luck ran out. Four rockets fired from Deir Balut in the Ramallah area hit the Beit Rivkah Hospital in Petach Tiqva, killing three women and a five-year-old girl.

Additional efforts were documented throughout the period of the Second Intifada and thereafter. Then too, Jenin was the focus of the phenomenon. Just prior to “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002 the IDF stopped a truck near the city that was found to be carrying rockets wrapped in canvas. In 2005, the Shin Bet succeeded in taking apart eight Hamas and PIJ cells dealing, among other things, with the development of rocket-related capabilities. The target, even back then, was Afula, which is clearly visible from Jenin. One year later, in 2006, launchers of two rockets that had been fired towards the settlement of Avnei Hafetz, but missed their target, were found in the Tulkarm area. In 2008, a rocket manufacturing workshop was uncovered in the Nablus casbah.

Now, a decade and a half later, intelligence experts assess that the attempted launches we have seen over the last three months or so will continue.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, former IDF Deputy Chief of General Staff, and who also served as head of IDF Central Command and of the National Security Council, also recommends that this renewed threat not be taken lightly.

“These are attacks that can be easily perpetrated. You don’t even need a vehicle for them. This is a prime example of ‘fire and forget.’ The domestic rockets are made of a hollow tube, a rocket motor, and explosives. You simply position them in a hiding place and go to sleep. The timer then does the rest of the work,” he said.

“I’m not revealing any state secrets here, but this is how it has worked for a number of years already. The capabilities are currently rather poor, but the potential for expansion is quite significant, and as opposed to Gaza, it may be effective against locations such as Netanya or Herzliya, and from much closer ranges,” he added.

“It might not be an existential or strategic threat, but with today’s mindset in Israel, and the raw nerves we live on, everything is rapidly intensified. As Israelis don’t simply make do with security. They also seek a sense of security, and this is something that is extremely vulnerable to the rocket threat. It might easily become very tangible and dangerous too, once the rockets are aimed at large population centers such as Afula or Hadera,” he said. He noted that “there is no need for any degree of accuracy here, as whatever happens the rockets will fall ‘within’ the target area. This is what they are aiming for.”

So what can be done to counter and mitigate this threat?

“Firstly, it is necessary to continue to prevent smuggling activity,” said Dayan. “It’s relatively easy to smuggle 107 mm Katyusha rockets, the main ones that have been in use here in recent years,” he added.

“Secondly, within Judea and Samaria the IDF really needs to deploy more mobile checkpoints rather than fixed ones that remain in the same location for weeks on end. I’m talking about mobile checkpoints that move from place to place once every few hours. This is most effective and works not only against the rocket threat but also against vehicles used by terrorists for shooting attacks,” he continued.

“Obviously, there is also a need for intelligence—we just had ‘Operation Bayit Vagan,’ and now we need to make … ‘visits’ and to look for workshops and machine shops dealing with rocket production, not only in Area A but also in Areas B & C” of Judea and Samaria, he said.

“A paltry threat”

Dayan warns also of the possibility that not only Palestinians but also hostile elements in Israel’s own Arab population might try their hand at producing rockets. “Israeli Arab elements have unfortunately been involved or helped or actually carried out other forms of terrorist attacks, and they might also find the use of rockets to be an attractive threat to attain their goals too,” he said.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gadi Shamni, a former commander of IDF Central Command, is also adamant that the rocket threat from Judea and Samaria is not something to be brushed aside. “This is a serious threat,” he said, “not in terms of the damage, but the potential disruption of regular life on the home front.”

He recalled that when he served as commander of the IDF Gaza Division in 2003-2004, “Qassam rockets were primitive tubes [made from] from road signs, with a small amount of explosives, but they made a terrible noise, causing major disruption to routine life.” On occasion, they did actually hit their targets, causing physical damage, he added. “We used to conduct raids and destroy machine shops, but we lacked permanent control over the territory, so we were not able to genuinely disrupt the terrorists’ efforts to build up their weapons capabilities, which have reached the proportions it has today,” he said.

In Judea and Samaria the conditions are “much better,” said Shamni, “as the IDF has a permanent presence on the ground. The most problematic area is northern Samaria.”

While Israeli forces have withdrawn from the area to a degree, “we haven’t really left the place,” he said. “The Disengagement Plan was implemented, but the IDF remained there, and now the residents of Homesh are returning there. In 2008, when I was still in the army, the ‘Jenin Pilot’ was just beginning. We tried to give the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian police and security forces more freedom to maneuver and freedom of action, based on the understanding that there were no longer any Israeli settlements there [these were uprooted as part of the Disengagement Plan – N.S.], but in 2009, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, the ‘Jenin Pilot’ slowly died out.

“The prime minister did not want to do anything to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. This is his familiar policy of exploiting the rivalry between Hamas and the P.A.; to further entrench the split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the P.A. in the West Bank, in order to weaken [P.A. leader] Mahmoud Abbas and to maintain the current standstill, which is ostensibly ‘good’ for Israel.”

Accordingly, he continued, “policymakers then imposed a veto on any efforts to bolster the P.A.’s intelligence capabilities, including their equipment in their armored vehicles and their ability to take part in training sessions in Jordan. Many efforts that had been ongoing until that point, together with both the Americans and the Jordanians, in essence were discontinued. This is how the vacuum was formed into which both Hamas and the PIJ were sucked, and now, as a result, the Jenin area is essentially controlled by radical forces, who are seeking to gradually build a credible rocket threat.”

Shamni asks us to imagine a situation whereby once a month the Palestinian terrorist organizations succeed in firing just a few rockets into Israeli territory, “They might or might not actually hit. Does anybody really believe that the IDF will be able to just sit idly by? This would require the State of Israel to invest vast amounts of resources to contend with a threat that is essentially almost nonexistent, a really paltry threat, but at the same time a threat that simply cannot be ignored as the public would be overwhelmed by anxiety.”

He believes that in the long term, it is in Israel’s interest to ensure that in the Jenin area, and other locations too, the P.A. has a durable presence, with a firm economic basis and the ability to govern and impose its control over the area.

“I am aware of the serious concern over ‘Gaza-ization’ and agree that the fact that the IDF is doing its utmost to prevent this is a key factor in dramatically slowing down the development of this scenario, but in my opinion, the current situation will not prevail over the course of time. Eventually, this will blow up in our faces,” he said.

“It would be highly advisable to engage in an effort right now, or in the near future, to build independent capabilities of those Palestinians who do have a clear interest in preventing hostile activity and acts of terrorism, not to mention the threat of rocket attacks on Israel.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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