Dan Balilty / AP

Israel’s mixed message on the threat of Hamas’ rockets

Missiles from Gaza are claimed to be both mortally dangerous and ineffective

July 29, 2014 2:45PM ET

Israel firmly maintains that rockets fired by Hamas into its territory are a source of profound terror that must be stopped. This menace has been the focus of Israeli PR and statements from Israeli authorities, some even drawing grand historical analogies.

“There’s only been one other instance where a democracy has been rocketed and pelleted with these projectiles of death, and that’s Britain during World War II,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a joint conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond last Thursday. “Israel is undergoing a similar bombardment now.”

But this tale does not stand up to historical scrutiny. In fact, compared with Nazi Germany’s then-advanced missiles armed with powerful explosives, Hamas’ rockets are relatively harmless. At the height of World War II, the Germans fired 1,400 rockets on London, killing 7,250 people — military personnel and civilians.

An Israel Defense Forces chart on the threat from Hamas’ rockets.

Since the latest conflagration began, Hamas and other Palestinian factions have fired about 2,319 rockets from Gaza. The Israeli military puts the number above 2,500. Yet they killed only two people: a Thai guest worker and a Palestinian Bedouin citizen of Israel. A third civilian casualty in Israel was killed while delivering food to soldiers as a volunteer by mortar fire, not a rocket.

The Israeli government continues to present the threat of rockets raining down on its civilians with forensic exuberance. Last week during a meeting in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu showed United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a “display of rockets that had landed on Israeli cities” and a “video of IDF soldiers uncovering rockets at an agricultural school in Gaza.”

Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor called the use of the rockets a “war crime.” The “unrelenting threat” of the rockets is “casting its dark shadow over the people of Israel,” he told the Security Council on July 18.

Israel’s alarmism is difficult to reconcile with other official Israeli statements that minimize the rocket threat. First, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates air traffic, stopped U.S. commercial flights to Tel Aviv after rockets landed near the airport, Netanyahu grew incensed and suggested the move was the Obama administration’s tactic to pressure Israel to end the assault on Gaza.

Second, Israel says its Iron Dome missile defense system is effective at stopping incoming projectiles 86 percent of the time. However, its enthusiastic praise for the technological marvel of this system is not congruent with the depictions of the mortal threat of Hamas’ rockets. This claim of having an effective shield against rockets is even more difficult to square with the scale of Israel’s destruction in the Gaza Strip. It raises serious questions about the proportionality of Israel’s actions. It is another reason to object to the ongoing military onslaught that has so far left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead and another 5,000 injured  —  of whom an estimated 70 percent are civilians. 

Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee tweeted in Arabic to his more than 119,000 followers is that the rockets are ‘weak’ and a ‘failure’ and that the threat is exaggerated by Hamas.

Third, there is a marked difference between what Israeli leaders say in English to the world and what Israeli representatives say in Arabic to Arab audiences. In fact, the message in Arabic is quite the opposite of the one in English — something Israeli leaders and advocates used to relish in pointing out about the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the Israeli military has also been sending mixed signals through social media. The Israeli military spokesman for Arabic media, Avichay Adraee, tweeted in Arabic to his more than 119,000 followers is that the rockets are “weak” and a “failure” and that the threat is exaggerated by Hamas.

His message is triumphalist and stridently plays down the threat. “As usual, rockets fired by Hamas exploded in the sky,” he noted in one tweet. He has also claimed that Hamas does not have many rockets and that its rocket system is not working.

On July 21, Al Jazeera board member Elham Bader encountered similar dismissals when she asked Adraee about a bombardment of an Israeli settlement.

“What did the rocket accomplish?” Adraee replied, adding that the entire “resistance is a failure.” “It either fell in an empty space or has been shot in the air.”

Even the English account for the Israeli military has started lampooning the inefftiveness of the rockets, claiming that 10 percent of them land in Gaza itself. However, unlike the Arabic account, many of the English language tweets have been in line with the official message about the ghastly danger the rockets present.

Such mixed messaging makes the dire estimates of the rocket threat seem less credible.

None of this is to suggest the rockets are just or harmless. They have killed an estimated 22 Israelis since 2004 and injured more, indiscriminately. There are reports of Israelis being treated for shock. The public sirens that signal incoming rockets and send people to bunkers disrupt daily life and cause great anxiety. However, the actual casualties caused by Hamas’ rudimentary rockets pale compared with what Gaza faces from Israel’s aerial campaign and ground invasion. The remedies that Israel proposes have to fit with the scale of the threat.

Casting aside the actual reasons for Operation Protective Edge, international law requires state violence to be necessary and proportionate if done in the name of self-defense, which Israel invokes (questionably, as Henry Siegman has persuasively argued). But a threat must be imminent rather than hypothetical, distant, possible or immaterial. This raises the question, Which set of messages about the danger of the rockets is the more accurate?

Israeli officialdom has been far too selective and inconsistent about threats from Gaza to justify the cost in human life and the further destruction of Gaza. Therefore, a realistic and sober assessment of the risk Hamas and other factions in Gaza pose is required. The world must remind Israel that self-defense does not provide a blank check to engage in broad military campaigns or collective punishment. 

William Youmans is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Broadly interested in questions of transnationalism and news media in conflict, he researches global news media, journalism, media law and social movements.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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