The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine has inadvertently given Hamas a powerful strategic weapon in its war against Israel. And, it appears, both Hamas and Israel are well aware of it.
For weeks, Hamas has been pointing out to international media that it's targeting Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with its rockets.
"The armed wing of the Hamas movement has decided to respond to the Israeli aggression, and we warn you against carrying out flights to Ben-Gurion airport, which will be one of our targets today because it also hosts a military air base." - Hamas Statement, July 11 via NBC.com
But nobody really paid much attention.
Why does it matter?
Hamas is seriously out-manned and out-gunned by the Israel Defence Forces. That's a good thing. But, while Hamas may be evil, it isn't stupid. It has clearly been looking to leverage the puny tactical impact of its rockets into a strategic weapon. In the highly-sensitive environment post MH-17, Hamas has succeeded.
The same thing happened in Afghanistan. When insurgents adopted Improvised Explosive Devices as their weapon of choice, they were brilliantly strategic. IEDs have little or no tactical impact on the battlefield. They don't stop western armies. Every time a soldier fell from an IED, two more filled his (or her) place. Every vehicle disabled by an IED was immediately replaced in the attack. IEDs slowed, but did not deter, western armies.
At home, however, IEDs were magnified a thousandfold through media coverage. Every death in Afghanistan created five or six days of headlines: Day 1 - announcement of a death. Day 2 - video of the commander speaking about the soldier. Day 3 - sombre ramp ceremony loading the casket onto an airplane. Day 4 - unloading the casket at home, and the grieving family. Day 5 - background on the deceased: reactions from family, school mates, friends, neighbours. Day 6 - funeral.
Every news story magnified the impact of the death. In the Second World War, families were notified of the death of a soldier by telegram. It was a largely private grief. In the 21st Century, the entire nation mourned the loss of each and every soldier. The deceased was everyone's son, brother, sister, mother. This national horror leveraged up the minuscule tactical value of the IED. IEDs became a strategic weapon; they struck at the homeland of the enemy (us.)
IEDs sapped western nations of the will to fight on. Eventually, our governments withdrew from the battlefield.
Israel needs its airport
The only practical way to get to or from Israel is by air. There are meagre border crossings at the Allenby Bridge into Syria, and Gaza and Rafah into Egypt. But, who takes those? Not tourists, not businessmen, not many, anyway. There is some sea traffic. But, most people arrive and leave Israel by air. Through Ben Gurion.
Since MH-17 was shot down by Russian-backed insurgents in Ukraine, the world has been highly sensitized to the vulnerability of civil airliners. They're hard to shoot down at altitude -- that requires very sophisticated weaponry. Yet bad guys still managed to do just that with MH-17.
But, shooting down airplanes around airports, where they're close to the ground and moving relatively slowly is dead easy. Any terrorist with a handheld rocket launcher could do it.
Hamas causes much of its trouble in Israel with rockets. Simple. Cheap. Crude. Not much more sophisticated than large holiday fireworks. They're launched in the general direction of a target and they fall where they may. There is no sophisticated targeting. They carry a small explosive charge and shrapnel. They generally cause little damage.
But their unpredictability makes them terrifying. They're cheap and plentiful. And every time one falls harmlessly in the countryside, the people of Israel ask "what if?" What if it had landed 10 m closer? It would have been in my house. What if it had landed two minutes earlier? It would have hit my baby.
The Grad rockets raining down on Israel are not anti-aircraft weapons. But, they will damage an aircraft and more useful weapons -- handheld anti-aircraft missiles, even rocket propelled grenade launchers -- are no harder to come by.
Airlines are, naturally, skittish right now. Flying over the Donetsk region of Ukraine was allowed, though the Federal Aviation Administration had warned planes to avoid it. Some airlines took that advice. Some didn't, obviously.
Now, the FAA has issued a no-fly warning to U.S. airlines about Ben Gurion. European airlines and Air Canada stopped flying to Tel Aviv. The FAA lifted the no-fly yesterday, but many countries' airlines are still staying away. I'm sure insurance underwriters are not thrilled to cover airplanes flying into active war zones.
This morning, Israel issued a "Code Red" about incoming rockets. Hamas, recognizing the opportunity, renewed its media warnings that it was targeting the airport. This time, we're listening. And, I expect there will be lots to listen to. I expect Hamas will increase the frequency and number of its rocket attacks on the airport.
In response, Israel is ramping up its public relations counter-measures. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg made a highly publicized trip to Israel to demonstrate it's safe to do so. I expect to see more PR manoeuvres in the days to come. And, I expect to see more aggressive IDF attacks to neutralize the rocket attacks on the airport.
International airlines are -- quite rightly -- highly sensitive to threats from ongoing regional conflicts. The current flare up in violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip is no exception. The fall out of this coincidence, however, has given Hamas a powerful new strategic weapon in its fight with Israel. Israel needs international commerce. Israel needs the airport.
Sadly, this likely means the current round of fighting in Israel and Gaza is nowhere near finished.