Gaza’s Rocket Men Shoot for the Moon

Members of the Gaza faction of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades standing with their rockets

Abu Saif, a rocket maker for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, is a fan of Google Earth. One recent evening in Gaza City, I sat next to him as he showed me how he used the popular satellite mapping program to target sites within Israel.

“The technology is always improving,” he told me. “Our struggle started with the Kalashnikov, and then it moved to the suicide bomb, then the locally made rocket, and now the Grad rocket,” he said.

And that’s where Google Earth comes in. The satellite mapping tool that was created with help from the CIA’s venture capital arm has now become a favored tool for rocket makers, who use it to help aim their artillery. Maps are quickly outdated, and don’t provide, as Google Earth imagery does, the precise locations of buildings, roads, and other potential targets.

It wasn’t so much Google Earth that had brought me to Abu Saif, but rumors that Gaza’s rocket men were importing new technology, including guided missiles, to target Israel.

Rocket makers enjoy an air of mystery, and to meet Abu Saif (a nom de guerre, meaning the “father of Saif”), I was instructed to drive down a specific street in central Gaza City, where a young man jumped into the car and guided us to the meeting point. With electricity available for only a few hours a day in parts of Gaza City, we stumbled up several flights of a darkened stairwell illuminated only by our cell phones.

In 2008, when rockets were raining down on southern Israel, journalists would frequently visit the “factories,” where militants would make the crudely built weapons, called Qassams, named after the militant wing of Hamas. Lately, however, the rocket-making business has slowed (militants these days abide by an uneasy cease-fire made by Gaza’s notoriously fractious militant groups), and my meeting with Abu Saif took place in a small room of an apartment decorated with an orange floral print and a matching plastic orange flower arrangement; as we spoke a young child cried in the background.

Abu Saif (front and center) posing for the cameras

It was a rather domesticated setting for a meeting with one of the rocket makers, who over the last several years have become the rock stars of Gaza, or at least its reality stars. In some ways, rocket making has almost become an extreme form of reality television, with the militants understanding that playing to the cameras is as important as, or perhaps more important than, actually launching rockets. Groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades regularly film semiscripted home videos, complete with dramatic editing and cheap sets.

Indeed, Abu Saif was surrounded by a small gaggle of young men who, like members of a celebrity entourage, seemed to have little purpose other than to enhance the importance of their star.

Since there was no rocket-making happening on the evening I visited, Abu Saif offered to show me a video his group had shot for Al Jazeera English the week before. (He also insisted on videotaping our interview.) We sat quietly for about half an hour watching the tape, which showed the rocket makers preparing the propellant and then integrating it with the shrapnel-filled body. (A single rocket takes about 25 minutes to construct.) Abu Saif wouldn’t discuss the details of the ingredients.

“Is it sugar?” I said, as we watched Abu Saif and his masked colleagues pour a crystallized substance into a mixing pot.

“No, not sugar,” Abu Saif replied smiling.

It looked a lot like sugar, though, and despite Abu Saif’s denials, sugar and manure are commonly used as the propellant for Gaza’s Qassam rockets.

While the rocket launches have slowed, Gaza’s militants are still working on improving their crude technology; increasing the distance their homemade rockets travel has been a major goal. They’ve also begun launching Grads, a decades-old Soviet-era weapon that, though crude by modern standards, far exceeds the range of the homemade Qassams.

“The Qassams are primary rockets, and not that good of quality,” Abu Saif complained. “Really, even the Grad isn’t very good, it’s so old.”

For a long time, the Grads were difficult to get, but lately, according to Abu Saif, more of the rockets have been coming through the tunnels, and all the militant factions now have them. But the Grads are still expensive—they cost more than the locally made rockets—so militants use them sparingly. Abu Saif said that the group’s most recent rocket launch, a month earlier, had included a Grad, specifically to “send a message” to the Israeli side.

That the Grad sends more of a message than a sugar-filled rocket makes sense in the bizarre logic of psychological warfare that is waged between Gaza and Israel. Though the unguided rockets can and do kill people (21 people have been killed by rockets and mortars within Israel, according to the Israel Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit group), the vast majority fall impotently in open fields. But even a few hits are enough to spark panic among Israelis living near the border, and the militants are well aware that their real impact—as with suicide bombs—is to make the opposing side feel helpless.

Israel has turned to its own psychological remedy for the rockets: a $200 million system called Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down the militants’ rockets before they strike Israel. Critics of the system have questioned whether the high-tech air-defense system, which costs tens of thousands of dollars per shot, is a sensible way to take on rockets that cost only hundreds of dollars to launch.

The counterargument, as presented to me by one retired Israeli general, is that Iron Dome is a deterrent to the rocket attacks, because it makes the rockets less effective. “Now the other side is paying a significant cost, so assuming that Hezbollah and Hamas are rational, they will understand it’s not worth it to continue,” retired Gen. Ilon Bitton, a former air-defense commander, told me, since even the cheap rockets require resources—both financial and in terms of manpower. (Many Palestinian fighters are killed by Israeli drones when launching rockets.) But deterrence assumes that the other side believes the defensive system works, and speaking to militants in Gaza, I heard a variety of explanations—some convoluted—for why they believed Iron Dome wouldn’t be able to shoot down their rockets. Abu Saif, for example, said that Iron Dome could track only the electronics used in missiles and was incapable of intercepting Gaza’s homemade rockets. (In fact, Iron Dome employs a radar system that tracks the trajectory of the rockets; it is designed specifically for short-range threats, such as the Qassam and the Grad.)

Even if militants didn’t always understand the technological underpinnings of Iron Dome, they had grasped what many believe is its fundamental flaw: The system is expensive, and it can’t possibly intercept all the rockets being launched. “The Israelis are using a lot of money for this defense, but during the last attack, our rockets made it through,” Abu Hamza, a leader with Saraya Al-Quds, the militant wing of Islamic Jihad, told me.

Indeed, Israel may be improving its defenses, but the militants have been improving their rockets. They have, over the years, become more adept at aiming them, with help from Google Earth. Particularly since the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005, the rocket attacks, to be effective, have had to go longer distances.

Was it harder to target Israeli positions before the advent of Google Earth in 2005? I asked Abu Saif. “No, it was easier,” he replied, smiling. “Because the settlements then were inside Gaza.”

Yet lately it appears things may have evolved even beyond the unguided Grad. In April, militants launched into Israel what was reported to be a laser-guided missile, which struck a school bus. When asked if the militant groups were indeed on the cusp of employing a new technology, Abu Saif was coy, saying only that when the right time came, they would make an announcement.

“At some point in the future,” he said, “the Grad will be a thing of the past.”