While Israel wages a major air campaign against Iranian efforts to move longer range rockets and missiles into Syria and Lebanon, it still has a problem with shorter range unguided rockets. There are also a growing number of longer range rockets already in Lebanon and Gaza. The immediate threat is about 10,000 short-range rockets in Gaza and over 40,000 in southern Lebanon. Then there are locally produced rockets. Since 2013 Gaza has been using components smuggled in from Iran to build a longer range (75 kilometers) rockets. These were initially unguided but there are now upgrade kits that add GPS guidance.
Hamas has relied on mortar shells to supplement its rocket supply. The mortars only have a range of a few kilometers and mass fire is less likely. Israel has deployed its Iron Dome anti-rocket system for nearly a decade and this has further reduced the effectiveness of shorter range rockets. The only way to overcome Iron Dome is mass attacks, firing so many rockets at once that Iron Dome cannot handle all of them and some get through to populate areas. The downside of that is it triggers a more aggressive and destructive Israeli response.
For example, during the brief wars between Hamas and Israel since 2010 Israel has managed to bomb storage sites and destroy thousands of rockets before they could be used. After these short “wars” cargo entering Gaza was more strictly monitored, especially since 2014, forcing Hamas to depend more on locally fabricated rockets. These have proved unreliable and many do not make it across the border when launched. By restricting access to chemicals to manufacture propellant and explosives, the Hamas rocket stockpiles have been kept low and increasingly consist of aging locally made rockets that become even less reliable as they get older.
To deal with the aging rocket problem Hamas has periodically launched hundreds of them at Israel. There are always other reasons for these rocket attacks, but it does use a lot of rockets that nearing their “use by” date. It’s bad for morale to have a lot of rockets malfunction when launched. As a result in 2019, about 1,500 rockets and mortar shells were fired, with about 20 percent of this being shorter range shells. In 2018 the number was about 1,100. The mortar shells are difficult to get into Gaza now and mortar shells also degrade with age. Israel also knows a lot about what goes on in Gaza because they have an effective informer network in Gaza and the area is under constant aerial surveillance, mainly via UAVs. Whenever rockets or mortar shells are fired at Israel, airstrikes, via F-16s, helicopter gunships or UAVs are launched and in the last year over a thousand targets have been hit. Many of these trigger secondary explosions, indicating an ammunition stockpile or rocket workshop has been hit.
Making their own rockets is nothing new; the Palestinians have been doing it for decades. Hamas has been sending people to Iran for training for years. This made it possible to build locally larger rockets like the M-75, but only if Hamas could smuggle in key components. That has become more difficult since 2014. Most locally made Hamas Kassam rockets are based on the older Russian B-12 rocket. This is a factory-made, 107mm, 19 kg (42 pound), 860mm (33 inch) long Russian designed rocket that is very popular with terrorists. This unguided rocket has a range of about six kilometers and 1.4 kg (three pounds) of explosives in its warhead. It is designed to be fired from a launcher in salvoes of dozens at a time. When used individually, it is more accurate the closer it is to the target. This 107mm design has been copied by many nations and is very popular with guerillas and terrorists because of its small size and portability. Hamas has little need for the B-12 because their locally made Kassam rockets match it in range and lack of accuracy. But some B-12s are smuggled in any way when the opportunity presents itself.
The larger 122mm BM-21s weigh 68 kg (150 pounds) and are 2.9 meters (nine feet) long. These have 20 kg (44 pound) warheads but not much better accuracy than the 107mm model. However, these larger rockets have a maximum range of 20 kilometers. Again, because they are unguided, they are only effective if fired in salvos or at large targets (like cities or large military bases or industrial complexes). There are longer range (up to about 40 kilometers) versions of these rockets. These are made by a number of countries and gain their additional range by using smaller warheads.
A more formidable threat comes from Hezbollah, an Iran-sponsored Shia militia that controls most of southern Lebanon and the Israeli border area. Here a much more elaborate network of rocket storage bunkers and launch sites has been established for over 50,000 rockets. Israel responded with improved air defense systems and more ground forces on the Lebanese border.
Nothing the huge Hezbollah rocket stockpile and the number successfully used in 2006, Hamas decided to see how much damage it could do in a brief war with Israel in 2014. The 2006 war involved Hezbollah firing about 4,000 of their 14,000 rockets, mostly 122mm BM-21s. The war lasted five weeks and Hezbollah continued to fire rockets, but fewer of them as the war went on. They lost at least as many rockets as they fired because of Israeli airstrikes. The Israelis lost 167 dead, most of them soldiers and most of those across the border in Lebanon. Hezbollah lost over 600 dead while the Lebanese military and other militias lost about 90 dead. There were about a thousand civilians killed. Hezbollah overestimated how many rockets they could fire and how effective they would be. The Israeli civil defense system saved many lives by getting civilians into shelters or out of the way. The Israeli army underestimated the difficulty of overcoming Hezbollah resistance on the ground and the air force overestimated the effectiveness of airpower. Both sides made changes in the response to the 2006 war. Israel had an opportunity to demonstrate their improvements, Hezbollah has not.
Several months before the July 2014 war began Israel revealed that because of new technology and weapons the Israeli air force could now hit more targets in 24 hours than it did in 33 days, during the 34 day war with Hezbollah in 2006. In dealing with Hamas, Israel pointed out that it would now hit in less than 12 hours the number of targets it took seven days to find and attack during the week-long 2008 war with Hamas. This was all part of a technological revolution the Israeli armed forces have been undergoing since the 1990s. Since the 2006 war with Hezbollah, those changes have been accelerating. This statement did not disturb Hezbollah or Hamas because they knew the Israelis were always improving their technology. What was underestimated was the extent of this particular improvement.
Another surprise was how the Battlefield Internet improved Israeli intelligence efforts. Israel always had some formidable intelligence collection capabilities. Israel satellites, UAVs and manned recon aircraft collect data that leads to the identification of enemy bases and weapons storage sites. This, for example, enabled the Israeli Air Force to quickly destroy most of the long-range rockets in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008. The Israeli Air Force demonstrated a lot of changes less than two years after the 2006 war when, in Gaza, dozens of targets taken out within three minutes by Israeli warplanes. The new automated systems included everyone (air, ground and naval). In addition to using more sensors (ground, air and naval), all these were linked together electronically so that when a potential threat was detected every tank, infantry unit, artillery, aircraft or ship within range was alerted and provided access to video or other sensor data. Israel has long been the leading developer and supplier (for their own forces as well as export) of sensors and computerized command and control systems. All this enabled more targets to be found and attacked more quickly.
By 2014 Hezbollah was receiving more bad news in the form of an increasingly bloody civil war in Syria to overthrow the Iran-backed Assad government. Iran was determined to not lose in Syria and ordered Hezbollah to send thousands of its best militiamen to help the Assads. Hezbollah could not refuse, even though fighting in Syria was not popular with the Hezbollah gunmen or the rest of Lebanese who hated the Assads and openly favored the Syrian rebels. All this made Hezbollah even more unpopular in Lebanon.
By 2018 the war in Syria was decided and it left Syria and Lebanon dangerously different. This is because of population shifts and the growing animosity between Sunnis and Shia because of the civil war and the intervention of Iran and its Shia mercenaries, mainly from Lebanon and Afghanistan. Iran motivated the mercenaries with cash and a cause; to protect the Shia minority of Syria from annihilation. Iran encouraged its mercenaries to go after Sunnis in general, not just the ones belonging to Islamic terror groups, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Since 2011 over six million Syrians have been forced to leave Syria because of the war. Nearly all of those who fled the country, and won’t be coming back, are Sunni. That means the Sunni majority of the Syrian population goes from 70 percent in 2011 to 58 percent. To make matters worse Iran is encouraging Shia from other countries (Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq) to settle in Syria and take over the homes and property of the departed Sunnis. Few foreign Shia accepted the offer. The Assads deliberately attacked Sunni civilians and encouraged them to flee the country and does not want them back.
Most of the Syrian rebels were anti-Shia, mainly because the Assads are from a Shia minority that had misruled Syria for decades. The Assads had always been brutal towards any Sunni opposition. This has been a problem for Iran in Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah militia continues to expand its control throughout the country, beyond areas where the Shia minority they represent live. But because of the two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that have fled to Lebanon since 2012 the Lebanese Shia are now a smaller minority. Lebanon is overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the two million Syrian refugees it is hosting. That’s in a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, that radically changes the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. With the refugee influx, there are now over seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent are Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran-backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war, like the 1975-90 one, over this but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. By 2019 even that tactic had failed as all the non-Shia realized they were at risk for whatever madness Iran had in mind. This year there have been growing popular protests against Hezbollah. Morale among Hezbollah supporters was low even before that because of the thousands of Hezbollah killed or wounded fighting for Iran in Syria. That low morale turned to anti-Iran anger when, in the past year, Iran cut its cash payments to Hezbollah in half. This was a side effect of the U.S. restoring sanctions on Iran in 2017 and the $16 billion Iran had spent defending the Assads after 2011.
Hezbollah leaders still threaten Israel with a massive rocket attack but now many Hezbollah supporters, as well as the non-Shia majority of Lebanese openly oppose that. Israel has said it will attack Hezbollah targets throughout Lebanon and that will cripple the Lebanese economy. For years Hezbollah assumed that the majority of Lebanese would back them if there were another war with Israel. Now that assurance has turned to fears that Hezbollah would be attacked from the rear by non-Shia Lebanese while the Israelis came after them from the south. Non-Shia politicians no longer blame Israel but focus their ire on Iran and its puppet Hezbollah. There is fear that these non-Shia Lebanese political leaders are already in touch with Israel to cooperate in the destruction of Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, there have been far Israeli fewer airstrikes launched against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon and location data on storage sites is less difficult to come by. As with Gaza, storage sites are, as much as possible, placed in residential areas, often in specially built basements of homes, schools and hospitals. That tactic was never very popular in Lebanon, even though it was only Shia homes, schools and hospitals that were militarized. Yet many of those Shia communities contained large non-Shia minorities.
In response to the Hezbollah threat, Israel has warned Lebanon that the southern portion of their country will be devastated by Israeli air and artillery strikes if Hezbollah carries out another major rocket attack. For a long time Lebanon ignored these warnings but noting the extent and degree of devastation that took place in Syria since 2011, Lebanese public opinion has turned against Hezbollah and Iran. That has improved intelligence Israel can obtain about Hezbollah rocket storage and launch preparations and allowed a more extensive and precise target list to be prepared. Lebanese now take for granted that if Hezbollah does prepare for another mass attack, civilians should flee the border area as quickly as possible. This alone was causing Hezbollah morale and public support problems. Hezbollah is now seen as more of a threat to Lebanon than Israel. And Israel is seen as more of a friend to Lebanon than Iran and Hezbollah.