Since the end of the 51-day war last summer, Gaza’s armed resistance factions have largely observed the ceasefire amid near-daily Israeli violations. However, the prospect of another major Israeli attack is a question of when, not if, and Gaza’s resistance groups have been active in preparation for it.
Just yesterday, rockets were launched into Israel by a Salafist group aiming to undermine Hamas and Israel responded by launching overnight airstrikes on Hamas targets, shaking all of Gaza and stirring fresh trauma from last summer. This morning Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon once again threatened to escalate bombing.
While Al-Qassam and Saraya al-Quds, the respective armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have remain tight-lipped throughout the indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel currently taking place over a long-term truce and prisoner exchange for the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed last summer, I was able to gain access to the Popular Resistance Committee’s armed wing, the al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades. With 3,000 fighters, al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades are the third largest fighting faction in Gaza.
After an initial meeting with commander Abu Sayyaf, the nom de guerre of a former Qassam fighter who co-founded the al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, I was allowed to observe and photograph close-combat and rocket exercises.
“We in the al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades want to make sure that the Gaza Strip will never be defeated. The Gaza Strip is still strong and whenever the Israelis target us more, the resistance will grow stronger,” Abu Sayyaf explained. He continued, “They promised us to rebuild Gaza but we got used to these lies from the Arab regimes and also from the Israelis. But the Palestinian people will always be with the resistance and the resistance will always be with the people.”
I met the fighters in an industrial area next to an olive field in eastern Gaza. After an initial dispute with the owner of the land who they pay to allow fighters to train, they practiced a single advancing exercise and began to deploy rockets. An Israeli drone appeared overhead, and given the heightened tension with the recent rocket fire and Israeli bombing, Abu Sayyaf quickly scrubbed the day’s activities.
Two days later, we met in a nearby olive field. This time no drone was visible or audible. The fighters took turns providing cover as they advanced, attempting to simulate actual combat. After a few exercises, they prepared to practice moving rockets.
One of the larger rockets in their arsenal, the Nasser 5 is approximately 4 meters long and is capable of traveling approximately 40 to 45 kilometers. The Gaza-made projectile is an improvement on a rocket imported through tunnels, explained Abu Salah, the commander responsible for rockets in Abu Sayyaf’s battalion. But without a guidance system, it is impossible to attack specific targets, and they do not know the destructive capabilities of the rocket.
The Israeli-Egyptian siege doesn’t hinder their ability to manufacture rockets, Abu Salah boasted. Materials for manufacturing rockets continue to be smuggled in through tunnels, and alternative materials are available in Gaza to replace them if they become impossible to smuggle in.
As with every war, the resistance learns lessons and adapts. While Gaza’s fighters are massively outmatched technologically versus the middle east’s most well-armed military, the vast networks of tunnels fighters dug allowed them to engage in guerrilla combat that came as a surprise to the Israeli military. Though Israel escaped almost unscathed in Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009 and in Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, resistance fighters killed 66 soldiers during last summer’s fighting, a sharp increase from the 13 killed (4 were soldiers by friendly fire) in 2008/2009.
“Six years ago, we used to launch rockets from above ground, and now we can launch them from underground, day or night,” said Abu Salah. “We used to just have defense plans, but now we make plans to attack.”
Manufacturing of rockets continues unabated despite the Israeli-Egyptian siege, which ostensibly is to prevent armed groups from importing weapons. While it fails to achieve Israel’s stated goal, the siege collectively punishes all 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, impacting every aspect of daily life and preventing reconstruction after Israel decimated huge swaths of Gaza last summer.
Unsurprisingly, it is this mass-destruction and collective punishment that engenders support for armed resistance in Gaza’s beleaguered population. Palestinians I spoke to during last year’s war cited lifting of the siege as their reason for support of resistance despite Israel exacting such a massive toll on civilians.
“The resistance has improved and the people are more aware of the resistance and they all want to fight,” Abu Salah told me. “We are fighting for our rights. We are fighting for our lands. We are fighting for a good life and we want to build a future for our children.”
The battalion practiced carrying the rocket on the shoulders of four men at a time over uneven dirt terrain and between olive trees, as well as inserting and removing the rocket from the mouth of a tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel system was a refashioned sewage pipe poking slightly out of the ground at a 45 degree angle, and the mouth of the tunnel was covered by prayer rugs, dirt and brush. The entrance was barely large enough for an adult to fit through and one fighter had to remove his vest in order to enter.
Abu Sayyaf described al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades collaboration with al-Qassam, Saraya al-Quds, the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine Ali Abu Mustafa Brigades, and Abdel Kader al Husseini (another faction close to Fatah). “We have an operation room where we discuss what we are going to do, and whether we are initiating or it’s a response,” he said.
Abu Salah elaborated on the joint efforts among the factions. “We share information between the groups and especially between the groups which are making the rockets. A group of us go to see how the other groups use the materials to improve rockets, and then we work on our rockets to improve them.”
Sitting in the dirt under an olive tree, I interviewed a few fighters, hoping to gain insight into what makes them pick up a weapon.
“Since we were born we’ve known that there is the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” Abu Salah explained. “This occupation steals, kidnaps and imprisons the Palestinian people. They come into our lands and houses so we have to fight them until the end and we can only fight them with weapons until they withdraw from our holy lands. When they withdraw from our lands we will drop our weapons and live our lives. We just want to live in peace and be safe in our houses, and we want to raise our children in a safe atmosphere without bombing and killing — without hearing ‘this one died, this one is injured, this one was kidnapped.’ We want to live in dignity.”
A young fighter named Abu Suhaib went on: “Of course we weren’t born as fighters. We are human beings like anyone else. We always have the patience to see our martyrs and beloved’s bodies in pieces. We’re fighting for land which was stolen from us. At first, we didn’t have the capabilities to take back our land but now we do…. We don’t fight anyone because they are of a different religion or nationality. They took our rights from us and no one can live without their rights and dignity.”
After decades of failed negotiations, the fighters emphasized that Palestinians pay the price while Israelis enjoy a one-way peace. “The only way to expel the occupation is by force and resistance. You can’t negotiate with them [the Israelis],” said Abu Suhaib. “We sat at the table, we went abroad for conferences, but they all go in favor of the Israelis… We found that the only way to talk with the Israelis is with weapons,” he added.
For these men, it is attacks on civilians that compels them to join the resistance. “We witnessed Muhammed al-Dura in the Second Intifada, the bombing and assassinations of our leaders and killing of our people,” Abu Suhaib said. “They bomb our mosques, hospitals and governmental buildings, so we have to face this occupation.”
Abu Islam, a unit commander under Abu Sayyaf, had a message to the American people, “My name is Abu Islam. I am a fighter in al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades. We want to send a message to all the countries around the world, especially the Americans, and at the top of them, Obama. We are the Palestinian people, not terrorists. We are just defending our land, our children, our elderly, our holy sites. The occupation came to us, we didn’t go to it,” he added, “The Americans and all the countries around the world are watching this without doing anything.”
Indeed, using precision-guided munitions, Israel targeted civilians during last summer’s assault that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, 70% of whom were civilians including 539 children. Israeli firepower damaged or destroyed 100,000 homes, 278 mosques, 24 medical facilities, 360 factories, 22 schools and three landmark towers. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers died (mostly during the ground invasion of Gaza) and six civilians, despite the inability of the armed groups to target their rockets.
For all of the attention they receive, Palestinian rockets and mortars have killed 44 Israelis since 2001, a tiny fraction of the number of Palestinians killed in last year’s war. Though analysts focus on the number of rockets launched, portraying a false sense of symmetry between Israeli and Palestinian weapons, rockets “statistically cause the fewest losses,” according to an Israeli Ministry of Defense official, who went on to say that, “Qassams are more of a psychological than physical threat.”
Forced into a corner of continued occupation, settlement expansion, the failure of diplomacy and negotiations to achieve any gains for Palestinians, and unprecedented Israeli violence on Gaza, taking up arms should be seen as a natural response. As long as impunity continues for Israeli attacks on civilians, Palestinian armed resistance will continue to be able to draw support from Gaza’s population.