August 14, 2022 | Haaretz

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

Roughly 200 Gaza rockets misfired in the recent conflict, killing at least 15 civilians. So why are Islamic Jihad’s projectiles so fatally unreliable? And what are Iran’s plans for its proxy?
August 14, 2022 | Haaretz

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

Roughly 200 Gaza rockets misfired in the recent conflict, killing at least 15 civilians. So why are Islamic Jihad’s projectiles so fatally unreliable? And what are Iran’s plans for its proxy?

As a pioneer of suicide bombings, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has long made clear its willingness to kill Palestinians in order to kill Israelis. The latest surge of fighting across the Gaza Strip border took the group’s tactical nihilism up a notch: Its rockets caused Palestinian casualties that exceeded the collateral damage from Israel’s military strikes.

According to estimates from the Israel Defense Forces, of the approximately 51 dead in Gaza, at least 15 were killed by Palestinian rockets that unintentionally landed in the coastal strip. Haaretz’s latest report indicates 16 killed by rockets and 49 Palestinians in total. By contrast, Israel killed 11 Palestinians as collateral damage. The remainder of the deaths involved Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli forces.

These same estimates indicate that of the approximately 1,100 projectiles launched by the terrorist group, roughly 200 rockets – or 18 percent of all strikes – malfunctioned or otherwise fell short of their target. Thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system, no Israelis perished from Palestinian rockets.

Two of the Islamic Jihad misfires that killed Palestinians took place in the final hours of the conflict, as the group stepped up its salvos in the hope of entering the cease-fire with dead Israelis as a trophy. No doubt the gunners’ zest to beat the deadline, while avoiding exposure to lethal Israeli counterstrikes, had further deleterious effects on the accuracy of these rockets.

This self-inflicted damage provoked a response from Hamas, which rules Gaza. Shortly after the conflict ended, Hamas issued strict rules on Gaza media coverage, prohibiting Gaza-based outlets from reporting on Palestinians killed by Palestinian rockets or military operations. Hamas also required reporters to blame Israel. The terrorist group later rescinded these rules after protests from international media, which depend heavily on Palestinian reporters and translators. But the implicit threat to local and foreign media was clear for future coverage.

Also clear: the dismal operational performance of Islamic Jihad, twinned with Israel’s decapitation of the Islamic Jihad high command, contributed to the Iranian-backed faction’s decision to agree to a cease-fire after a reported 56 hours of fighting that exacted zero Israeli fatalities. What remains to be seen is whether Islamic Jihad will manage to overhaul and improve its arsenal ahead of the next round of violence.

Conditions are not currently in its favor. But that may change with support from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

With hefty funding from Tehran, Islamic Jihad has acquired more sophisticated antitank missiles, explosive UAVs, and other advanced weapons. It is also the recipient of Iranian know how to locally produce projectiles. This represents a shift from transferring complete systems seen in the Iranian arsenal, such as the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, to proliferating technology and component parts specifically for Iran’s proxies, making attribution and interception comparatively harder. This strategy is already yielding new and more lethal rockets, like the Badr-3 with its 250-plus kilogram warhead, which are fast appearing on the battlefield. Hamas employed the Badr-3 in the May 2021 war against Israel.

However, at present, most of Islamic Jihad’s arsenal remains rudimentary. Israeli and Egyptian interdiction has hampered the terrorist group’s efforts to smuggle factory grade munitions into Gaza through the Sinai and Sudan. This has required its cadres to resort to improvised and Gaza-based production, consulting Iranian-supplied manufacturing blueprints, with water pipes repurposed as rocket casings and fertilizer-mix explosives filling the warheads. As a precaution against Israeli counterstrikes, Islamic Jihad has positioned some of the rockets in small underground silos for future remote activation, though changing weather and soil erosion can impair their aim.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as well as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, position these silos near schools, homes, mosques and hospitals using human shields, including children.

Though the use of human shields is prohibited under American law and UN resolutions, these terrorist groups are adept at using civilians to force the IDF to call off strikes against rocket launchers and other weaponry targeting Israeli civilians – or bear harsh international condemnation for Palestinian civilian casualties.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas have long trumpeted these rudimentary weapons and battlefield tactics as a badge of honor in their asymmetrical struggle against a militarily superior enemy. These admissions are well-documented, and should now render hollow their attempt, after the latest conflict, to deny they had inflicted Palestinian casualties.

After all, any munition can misfire, but the risk is far greater for munitions manufactured underground and with subpar materials. A bent fin, too short a fuse or engine fuel overheated by the summer sun can be enough to cause one of these rockets to blow up too close to launch or plummet to the ground mid-flight.

One bystander’s video showed a rocket banking almost 180 degrees, then plunging into a Gaza neighborhood. In another video, a rocket nearly strikes an Al-Mayadeen news crew in Gaza before it hits the ground.

Islamic Jihad’s rockets lack guidance systems, instead being designed for fire-and-forget saturation attacks hoping to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors. Still, even the simplest of rockets need to be test-fired, and here is another weakness facing the militant Islamists of Gaza: While they have launched rockets into the Mediterranean Sea, they do not have monitoring and telemetry systems capable of providing accurate data on impact points that would help extrapolate range and accuracy.

Reuters expose in 2012 found evidence that the group was also test-firing rockets into the neighboring Egyptian Sinai, where collaborators would report back regarding impact. But with the Sisi government now in place in Cairo, such an option is no doubt denied them. So in wartime, Islamic Jihad and Hamas are often firing blind, with rockets that are – in performance terms – a Russian roulette.

But thanks to Iranian support, the precision, range and lethality of Islamic Jihad’s weapons will likely improve, as have those of other Iranian proxies in the region like Lebanese Hezbollah. In time, Islamic Jihad will grow more effective at killing Israeli civilians. This will require more Israeli military action to deter and punish the terror group. More Palestinian civilians will die as Islamic Jihad’s zeal to kill Israeli civilians – matched only by that of Hamas and their Iranian patron – overwhelms any concern for the lives of the Palestinian people.

Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @mdubowitz. Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Jihadism Palestinian Politics