Of Rockets and Hospitals

Below is a new blog post from our friend William (Chip) Sayers. As it about the current fighting between Hamas and Israel, I am almost afraid to post it, as anything you say is going to offend someone somewhere. But… we push forward, in the spirit of open discussion, putting the usual disclaimer that this is Chip Sayers’ personal evaluation and does not represent the position of The Dupuy Institute, and so on and so forth.

His posting:

Of Rockets and Hospitals

Recently, a Gaza City hospital was reportedly destroyed with great loss of life. At first, the Israeli Air Force was blamed — with all the footage of buildings collapsing after IAF strikes, it seemed the logical explanation. However, a second narrative sprang up when an audio file of what was purported to a Hamas guerilla reporting to his leadership that the strike was actually by a malfunctioning Hamas rocket inadvertently falling on the hospital. If one blindly believes one side or the other, this is a simple problem: the bad guys did it and are trying to shift the blame to the good guys. For the rest of us with more critical minds, we want to know if this is something that can be teased apart to reveal the truth.

First off, we need to explore motive: why would either side deliberately do this? The Hamas audio file clearly portrays the incident as an accident, so motive is not a factor on their side — they didn’t mean to do it. 

Israel’s position in more complex. Two weeks into this war, Tel Aviv has more worldwide support than they have enjoyed in decades, primarily it seems, due to the savage nature of Hamas’ surprise attack and a clear attempt to intimidate Israel through deliberately repulsive inhumane actions. This support may not last long and any misstep by Tel Aviv could cause it to vanish altogether. Certainly, the deliberate bombing of a Palestinian hospital would qualify as a massive misstep. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that Israel would risk so much for so little advantage. Indeed, what advantage could be derived from such a strike? Even if Netanyahu was hell-bent on genocide, this would be a bad move at this stage of the war.

If Israel did this, it is far more likely that it was a mistake — similar to the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade twenty-four years ago. In that particular case, we had paid little attention to Yugoslavia for the previous decade and our files were in pitiful shape [Chip would probably know this due to his background]. Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy had moved without our notice. I’m sure the Dept. of State knew exactly where it was, but Dept. of Defense, not so much. Could this have been the result of a similar mistake? Possibly, but Gaza isn’t a backwater that Israeli intelligence has ignored for the previous decade. Further, hospitals — particularly in wartime — have distinct signatures: lots of traffic, including multiple ambulances at any given time, 24-hour service, plus they are usually distinctively marked. So, it seems unlikely that it could have been a case of misidentification.

If this was not an intentional act, could it have been some kind of mistake? The strategic bombing campaign against Germany in WWII is replete with examples of bombers — even lead bombers — being hit at the moment of bomb release which cause the deadly payloads to go astray. In December, 1972, a USAF B-52 infamously damaged the Bac Mai hospital in Hanoi in a similar occurrence. Further, the bombs themselves can be damaged such that fins are bent or fail to deploy, causing the missile to go astray. Even GPS-guided bombs can malfunction or fall to human error with unintended consequences. On 5 December 2001, Hamid Karzai, future President of Afghanistan was almost killed when an attack controller changed the batteries on his GPS kit just before a strike and inadvertently ordered the bomb onto his own coordinates. Could this have been a malfunction or mistake on the part of the IAF? Yes, absolutely.

Could this have been caused by a Hamas rocket? Yes. In fact, it’s inevitable. While some of Hamas’ rockets are factory-made in Iran, it appears that the vast majority are “homemade” in small sheet-metal shops on-site. While the designs have been largely standardized, the potential for malfunctions is fairly high. When tens of thousands of rockets are launched, a certain percentage of them are inevitably going to go astray. In point of fact, Hamas and Hezbollah actually depend on the fact that these things land indiscriminately among the general population of Israel. While a portion of Hezbollah’s rockets are guided to one degree or another, the vast majority of both group’s are not, so many of the attacking rockets may be malfunctioning without anyone being the wiser. It’s actually surprising that more “short rounds” of Hamas rockets haven’t been reported falling on Gaza.

So, what can the actual damage to the hospital tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us someone is lying. It is almost inconceivable that 500 people died in that strike given the damage reported. Had the hospital collapsed entirely, that would be a high figure. But there is no significant structural damage to the building to be seen and a very small crater in the pavement (2-3 feet deep by about as wide), consistent with the detonation of a relatively small rocket warhead detonation. A dozen, two dozen, maybe a handful more deaths could have resulted, but 500 is patently ludicrous. In a perfect storm of circumstances, a 2,000lb bomb might have done that kind of damage, but it would have had to be an airburst detonation roughly 30-50 feet above the ground. That would almost certainly have been a preplanned act with deliberate fuzeing to kill the maximum number of people. We have seen no evidence whatsoever that the IAF has made other attacks in a similar fashion. A malfunction or mistake with a 2,000lb bomb would have involved a bomb fuzed to detonate after penetrating deep into the ground — which matches what we have seen thus far as they have brought down building after building with such attacks. Had one of these attacks gone astray for whatever reason, there would be a crater in evidence — on the order of 30 or 40 feet wide by 20 feet or more deep, nothing like what we’ve seen.

The evidence is leaning towards a Hamas rocket, but an IAF bomb cannot be ruled out. The question remains, who benefits? Clearly, it’s Hamas. U.S. support has weakened already, with Congressmen and college students protesting Israeli “war crimes.” The narrative that Israel did this serves to give the sides a moral equivalence in some minds. On the other hand, Israel has everything to lose and nothing to gain by such butchery.

And this, my friends, is a good example of intelligence analysis. You take disparate fragments of information, paste them into a framework that tells a plausible story, and you make a judgement call. Hopefully, the analyst has his or her judgment backed by plenty of relevant experience. There are no crystal balls and only on the rarest occasions does the enemy reveal his evil plans within earshot of some collector. And even then, you always have to be suspicious that he’s feeding you the information for his own nefarious reasons.

My own call? Hamas did it. They may have even done it deliberately — we saw that happen often enough 25 years ago in the Balkans. However, we won’t get that paranoid. The likeliest explanation is a malfunction, and I’m sticking with my story.

This entry was posted in Middle East by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. ... Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. ... His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024). ... Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

12 thoughts on “Of Rockets and Hospitals

  1. The message intercept indicated that Hamas’ ally/competitor, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, caused the blast near the hospital when one of that terrorist group’s rockets launched from a nearby cemetery went awry. It’s been suggested that the fiery blast wasn’t from the warhead, but from the fuel section of the disintegrating rocket.

  2. “Two weeks into this war, Tel Aviv has more worldwide support than they have enjoyed in decades …”

    Really? If the world is London, Brussels, Washington and Tel Aviv, then maybe so. What seems apparent in the news is quite the reverse. There is a major propaganda campaign in play in the West to counter the strong negatives of this situation as they apply to Israel. Israel is struggling to keep a positive image of but I don’t think its working quite as desired. There is the scent of panic in the air coming from Israel and its friends. Killing great gobs of Gazans won’t build support for Israel. Not killing great gobs of Gazans will be a defeat for Israel as Hamas will claim victory. Zugzwang for Israel.

      • I was addressing the assertion made by the author that 2 weeks into this business Israel was enjoying unprecedented world wide support. Only true if you live inside the Western elites’ info bubble. As for the rest of my comment, Israel’s situation is obvious, so the author would necessarily have to acknowledge that, just remain credible.

        • Unprecedented is a relative term. I don’t think there is any real disagreement here. The U.S is the primary supporter of Israel, and it is hardly just the “Western elites.” It is pretty broad across both major political parties, both the leadership and common voters. I don’t have a problem with what Chip Sayers said.

          • The United States are not the world and unprecedented is less relative a term than you aver.

        • Begemot: Please!
          The author certainly did not claim that Israel was enjoying ‘unprecedented support’ from ‘the West’.
          Instead he wrote ‘during the first two weeks it has received more support than it has seen in decades’ but immediately followed this with the statement that Western support for Israel will only go so far, and could quickly evaporate if Israel’s military operations turn especially ugly.
          This is very different from your dishonest characterization of some imaginary Western Media Bubble brainwashing the idiots of the world into supporting anything Israel does.
          Have you bothered to watch the various US cable news networks, the BBC, Reuters, or read any major ‘Western’ papers recently?
          Who is living in an actual media bubble here?

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