Clearly, Hamas are not the only group using Qassam rockets, but they are the dominant force in Gaza right now and the leading resistance force in Palestine as a whole, so the focus is rightly on them - or, more accurately, on the ‘Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the organisation. The other day I expressed some doubt that these rockets had much going for them as a means of resistance. My incomprehension of the tactic is hardly a good basis for making a proper evaluation of it, however. So, in the interests of at least coming to a rudimentary understanding, here are a few notes on the background.
Much of Hamas' current military strategy is based on training received from Hezbollah in the early 1990s. Prior to that, their range of tactics was quite crude, the weapons technology as primitive as a few knives. The expulsion of 415 Hamas members from Gaza following the First Intifada led to them being taken under Hezbollah's wing in southern Lebanon. There they acquired the means of resistance that eventually enabled Hezbollah to free (most of) southern Lebanon of Israeli occupation: the Katyusha rockets, suicide attacks and the kidnapping of opposing soldiers. When the exiled cadre were able to return to Gaza in 1993, they put those tactics to work.
They could measure the success of such means not only by the effect they had on Israeli opinion, but also on whether it improved their standing among Palestinians, especially in light of the serious deterioration of Fatah and the creeping death of the 'peace process' under which colonisation was proceeding apace. At the same time as Hamas was establishing itself as the ideological successor to one-state nationalism, it also announced itself as the bearer of popular armed struggle, asserting the seriousness of its position through successful attacks and raids. Its suicide attacks proved that poorly funded and armed Palestinian groups could inflict substantial casualties on IDF troops as well as 'soft targets', killing dozens in a single attack. Between 1993 and 1997, the first wave of Hamas' campaign, 20 suicide attacks killed 175 people. As Robert Pape has shown, Hamas attacks were sometimes effective in achieving limited, tactics goals, such as a partial withdrawal from Gaza in 1995, or the release of political prisoners. This didn't always happen: the 1997 attacks only produced a new wave of repression under Netanyahu, which was able to do some substantial, if temporary, damage to Hamas' political and military infrastructure.
Throughout the Second Intifada, from September 2000 to November 2006, Hamas combined all three methods: suicide attacks, the abduction of Israeli soldiers, and rocket attacks. Suicide attacks were sometimes co-ordinated with others groups such as Islamic Jihad or the PFLP, but mainly carried out independently of any other group. They were sometimes in retaliation for Israeli assassinations, but their supposed deterrent effect was mainly intended to undercut support for Israel's repression more generally, as well as to destroy infrastructure, attack settler-colonists, and kill troops where possible. The abduction of soldiers included, obviously, the successful capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit, whom we are all supposed to feel sorry for. And the rockets have been used periodically, largely in response to renewed Israeli offensives. Like suicide bomb belts, they are cheap and easy to make. Unlike suicide bombs, they don't need live humans attached as mobile guidance systems. Of course, these were not the only methods used. Hamas repeatedly demonstrated a knack for peace offensives, as when in June 2003, at the height of Israel's repression, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad called a 45 day unilateral armistice.
Hamas has not claimed responsibility for a suicide attack since January 2005, when four people were killed at a Gush Katif checkpoint. The last major abduction was Shalit. Rockets have been used mainly in Gaza during the period of occupation, and since then in clustered attacks responding to Israeli assaults. In the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza, the rocket-fire diminished dramatically. The number of rockets fired soared following a new round of Israeli incursions into Gaza in mid-2006, which culminated in the murder of the Ghaliya family, and during Israel's war on Lebanon, and then again during subsequent assaults on Gaza. Obviously, the recent six month 'lull' was the occasion for another decline in their use.
One cannot treat the rocket fire in isolation, or as simply a desperate military gesture of lobbing missiles in the hope that someone, somewhere cops it. As Mishal and Sela have pointed out (The Palestinian Hamas, 2000), Hamas' military leadership is entirely instrumental about the use of violence: if its immediate ends can be obtained through peaceful measures, they will opt for those; if Israeli leaders make that impossible, they will use whatever military means are at their disposal. The rockets are expected to create fear in proportion to their number and their pervasive effect. Within a certain radius, they can hit anywhere and anyone. They are one component of a strategy designed to put pressure on Israeli society and undermine the government, showing that it cannot protect its citizens if it chooses to kill Palestinians.
It remains questionable how effective they are, however. The fact that the occasional person might actually get killed by such a weapon is unlikely to result in pressure on Tel Aviv to adopt a more humane policy toward the Palestinians: quite the reverse. Indeed, there can be such popular support for war on Gaza only because it is tacitly acknowledged that the provoked response is unlikely to be very deadly or frightening. If Israelis were really that terrified of the rockets, they would be considerably less gung-ho about blowing the shit out of Ay-rabs. The basic inefficacy of Qassams means that the IDF has always had an array of ultra-violent responses available to them. Back in 2004, before the Gaza pull-out, the doctrine espoused by Major-General Shamni was "stimulus and response": the IDF would try to stimulate attacks and then, with the evil-doers exposed, assassinate them. You don't provoke attacks in that fashion if you think the rockets are truly that menacing. Today, it seems that the doctrine of "stimulus and response" has been elevated to a whole new plateau: having provoked Hamas into renewing rocket fire after months of ceasefire, they created an excuse to launch this vicious operation. The current assault is demonstrating, inadvertently, that the rockets are becoming more effective, with longer reach into Israel. Five Israelis have been killed during the assault, one a soldier. However, this is little compared to Israel's ability to turn dozens of sites to rubble overnight, and kill hundreds in a few days.
The best hope that Gaza has is if the riots and protests still erupting across the West Bank turn into a full-scale Third Intifada, the protests in Egypt become the basis for the final demolition of the Mubarak regime, and the rest of the Middle East explodes in rebellion.