Qassam Rocket Attacks Against Israel

Published: 17 February 2005
Briefing Number 130

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Summary: Between 2003 and 2005, over 500 Qassam rocket attacks have been carried out by Gaza-based Palestinian groups against Israel. We highlight the tragedy of Israeli child victims. And we explain how the Qassam attacks expose several misconceptions concerning Palestinian violence.

17 year old Israeli girl killed, shielding her brother from a rocket attack

On 21 January 2005, 17 year old Ayala Abukasis, from the Israeli town of Sderot, died from shrapnel wounds which she suffered in a Qassam rocket attack carried out by Palestinians from Gaza.

Ayala and her 11 year old brother Tamir had been returning home on the Jewish Sabbath from a meeting of their youth group. The town’s siren went off, warning of an incoming rocket, which gave the two teenagers 20 seconds to hide. They did not have time to take cover, and Ayala lay on top of her brother, shielding him. A Qassam rocket exploded right beside them. Tamir suffered only minor injuries. Ayala was critically injured. A few days later, she died from her wounds.

Over 500 Qassams fired at Israeli town of Sderot

In total, over 500 Qassam rockets have been fired at the southern Israeli town of Sderot since 2003 by Palestinian groups which are based in the Gaza strip. In addition, thousands of mortar rounds have been fired at civilian Israeli targets, including Gaza strip settlements like Neve Dekalim and Gush Katif.

These attacks are indiscriminate. Several Israelis have been killed. Residents of Sderot regard it as miraculous that not more have died. Among the targets which have been hit, in Sderot and elsewhere, are a kindergarten, a synagogue, a school, the commercial quarter and a community centre.

Israeli child victims

In addition to Ayala Abukasis, several other children from Sderot have been killed or injured by Qassams:-

  • In September 2004, 2 year old Dorit Aniso and 4 year old Yuval Abele were killed by a Qassam rocket, which struck them while they were playing under an olive tree near their home, on the eve of the Jewish festival of Succot

  • In June 2004, 4 year old Afik Zahavi was killed by a Qassam rocket which exploded outside a kindergarten as he arrived there with his mother

The reaction of the residents of Sderot

Two years of Qassam rocket attacks have left the residents of Sderot feeling bitter, vulnerable and betrayed. The following comment by Mayor Eli Moyal typifies the mood (Jerusalem Report interview, 7 February 2005):-

“If an outsider came to Sderot, it might seem that normal life is continuing. But inside, abnormal things are happening to us. I want people to understand what we are going through…..

Here you have a city where kids are dying on their way to school…. even if they get to school, they can’t concentrate on their studies – they talk constantly about Qassams, Qassams, Qassams. I also hear kids saying things like “death to the Arabs”. We didn’t teach them that. We never, ever taught them to hate….. When little kids draw pictures, it’s always Qassams and graves….

…. My nightmare is that people will start to leave Sderot, that people will simply decide that they have had enough. That will mean that the Government of Israel can’t protect its own citizens…..”

Palestinian motives

To the outside world, Hamas and Islamic Jihad claim that the Qassam attacks are responses to Israeli military operations.

Israel argues that the Palestinian rocket attacks are the reason why Israel takes military action in Gaza, rather than being a Palestinian response to Israeli action.

Israeli experts argue that the real motive for the rocket attacks is the desire of different Palestinian factions to “claim credit” for Israel’s forthcoming departure from Gaza. These groups are determined to depict Israel’s withdrawal as a surrender to their violence. They are also anxious to win support among radical groups elsewhere in the Arab world, like Hizbollah.

Palestinian resentment in ‘Qassam City’, Beit Hanoun

Many Qassam rocket launches have taken place from Beit Hanoun, a Palestinian town of 30,000 on the eastern side of the Gaza strip, which has acquired the name ‘Qassam City’.

According to an in-depth report in the Jerusalem Report (20 September 2004), rocket squads from outside Beit Hanoun often use the town as a launch pad, and then quickly depart. The residents of Beit Hanoun are then left to face the retaliation of Israeli security forces: parts of Beit Hanoun have been reduced to rubble, and the town has suffered massive damage to property as a result of Israeli incursions. The rocket squads are widely viewed as “cowards” and “callous” for bringing this on the town. Typical quotes:-

Jamil, a resident of Beit Janoun: “The guys who launch the Qassams don’t care – they come, fire and go home to sleep. They’re not from here….”

A Palestinian Authority official: “the rich idiots [who fund Hamas] get excited when they see Qassams being fired at Israel, and pay up…”

In the words of Jamil, the Qassam war is “blind and haphazard”.

(In a notorious, and related, incident in July 2004, a member of the Fatah Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade shot dead a 16 year old Palestinian from Beit Hanoun, Hassan Za’anin, when he protested at the gunman’s plan to plant a road-side bomb near his home).

Israel’s military response to the Qassam attacks

Israel invokes its right of self-defence and has in the past entered the Northern Gaza strip to try to destroy the rocket-making factories and prevent future rocket attacks. Many Palestinians, including civilians, have been killed or injured in these operations, which have resulted in international condemnation.

Israelis spokesmen have maintained that the responsibility for the civilian casualties lies with the Palestinian groups who use civilian built-up areas like Beit Hanoun as their rocket launching area (see above).

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have tried to reassure the residents of Sderot that they will protect them. A recent meeting of the Israeli Cabinet was held in Sderot as a gesture of solidarity.

Cooperation with the Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas

With the election of Mahmoud Abbas on 9 January, Israeli strategy has changed. On 20 January 2005 Israel announced that it had agreed to allow several thousand Palestinian Authority security personnel to take over responsibility for preventing Qassam launches from Gaza.

Furthermore, despite a particularly intense Qassam barrage against Israel on 10 February, the Israel Government instructed its army to take no action of its own, and instead called on the Palestinians to intensify their efforts to curb the attacks (Jerusalem Post, 13 February 2005).

The Qassam attacks and misconceptions about Palestinian violence

The Palestinians’ Qassam campaign shatters several misconceptions about Palestinian violence:

Misconception: “The violence is caused by Israel’s occupation. If only Israel would end the ‘occupation’, the violence would stop….”

Reality: Israel is preparing to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip. Yet the violence emanating from Gaza is not reducing, but increasing. The groups carrying out the attacks want to claim credit for ending Israel’s occupation. It is not Israel’s presence in Gaza which is causing the violence, but the ending of Israel’s presence in Gaza….

Misconception: “The violence is causing Israel to moderate its policies….”

Reality: Far from it. The violence has caused a hardening of attitudes among the Israeli public. And politically, the rocket attacks from Gaza
are the argument most commonly used by opponents in Israel of disengagement. The violence could derail the Israeli withdrawal, rather than bring it about.

Misconception: “Israel and the Palestinians are involved in a ‘cycle of violence’…”

Reality: The Palestinian attacks are not in reality a response to Israeli attacks. They are prompted by internal Palestinian politics, first and foremost. Nor does Israel automatically retaliate when attacks do occur, as is clear from events since the election of Mahmoud Abbas. It can be argued that the events demonstrate not a cycle of violence, but a pattern of sabotage by Palestinian rejectionist groups who wish to wreck attempts to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Misconception: “The terrorists are the result of popular resistance to Israel….”

Reality: The Palestinian groups use Beit Hanoun cynically, and are resented, even hated by Palestinian residents there for making their lives such a misery.


Among the tragic victims of the Qassam rockets are Ayala Abukasis and other Israeli teenagers and children.

But the longer term victims, if the Qassam attacks are not curbed, could be all who wish to see a brighter future and peaceful coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian people.