Graveyard Shift for Islamic Jihad A Visit to a Gaza Rocket Factory

No matter what Israel does, the rockets from the Gaza Strip just keep coming. Young men like Abdul are the reason why. He studies by day, but at night he builds bombs for the Islamic Jihad. He and his fellow militants can produce up to 100 per night.

The young man pulls the door of the taxi closed. He is wet. There is a light drizzle in the Gaza Strip. He turns around and greets the passengers in the back seat with a quick handshake. "Are you ready?" he asks them. "As of this moment, we could be going to paradise at any time." The other people in the car don’t respond, and the driver of the Mercedes hits the gas. "I should have phoned my wife," he says after a while. "She should start to keep an eye out for a new husband."

It’s a long journey through the pitch-dark night as the taxi heads towards the secret rocket factory in the Gaza Strip. Since Abdul* and his two friends got in, it has become a life-threatening trip. The young men produce rockets for the Islamic Jihad. Day after day, their rudimentary bombs land on Israeli villages, fields and kibbutzim. Israel responds by using air strikes to kill the Qassam commandos. The attacks mostly target cars that carry the militants to their missions -- cars like the one we are traveling in this evening.

The car is traveling north in the direction of the Israeli border. The men make jokes about the virgins that according to Islamic belief are awaiting them in paradise: gallows humor. One holds a pistol in the face of the stranger: "I just wanted to see if you would be frightened." It's now pouring outside, the taxi's windows are so fogged that the promised blindfold is no longer necessary. It is impossible to tell where the car is; it's just clear that the houses outside are looking increasingly poor. Next to dark windows there are posters honoring the "martyrs," the Palestinians killed in the struggle with Israel. Smoldering campfires that appear between the massive puddles light the way.

The Fertilizer Comes from Israel

The vehicle finally stops at a dirt track. The Islamic Jihad rocket factory is housed in a kind of garden shed. The hut measures five meters by five meters, metal pipes with small wings lean against the wall in the corner: Half finished Qassams. There are several tightly packed garbage bags on a shelf. "TNT," says Abdul and produces a chunk. The explosive looks like lumpy sugar. A large cauldron is sitting ready on a gas cooker while bags with Hebrew writing are piled up high up against the wall. "Fertilizer for the rocket fuel," Abdul says and grins. "We get it in Israel."

Abdul is 22 but, tall and lanky as he is, he could still pass for 16. He has been making rockets for three and a half years and says he has finished hundreds of Qassams. A veteran with a double life: He studies geography during the day and makes his contribution to the Jihad at night.

Qassams are primitive missiles lacking any guidance system. Building one is "child's play," Abdul says: One of the team welds the rocket casings together from metal pipes, while another fills the warhead with up to three kilograms of TNT. Abdul's specialty is the last step: the rocket propulsion. He and his mates brew up the fuel out of a mixture of glucose, fertilizer and a few other chemicals, which is used to fire the rockets at distances of up to nine kilometers. Right at the end, he inserts the detonator cap, which makes the missile explode on impact. They hide the finished rockets in depots, which the launch commandos can then freely avail themselves of. Abdul only fires them himself when he has made some tiny improvements to a proven model. "Then I want to see how it flies."

Up to 100 Rockets a Night

The team can make up to 100 rockets per night shift, but today it won't be more than 10. Instead of the usual 12, only three of Abdul's men have turned up tonight. "The other guys are over in Egypt, shopping," he says, adding that the militants are just ordinary people who want to experience the open border with the neighboring country. Will they be looking for ingredients for building the Qassams? "Hardly," the oldest of the group laughs. "They are buying potato chips. We have enough raw materials to last for a few years."

The presence of smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border have ensured that there is never a lack of supplies. "The TNT comes to us from Sudan via Egypt." Other elements arrive by boat across the sea to Gaza. "We get some from Eastern Europe." The raw materials for one large rocket cost up to €500. The money to finance the operation comes the same route as the materials. "The Israeli blockade doesn't affect us; it's just intended to plunge the people into misery."

Now and then shots can be heard outside and an explosion echoes through the night. There is fighting at the nearby border. The walkie-talkies in the hut keep them up-to-date on the situation. With a hiss, the gas cooker comes to life. A cauldron full of fuel is set on it, and one of the men stirs in a lump of golden syrup, while the others weigh the fertilizer, which contains nitrate. They explain that the nitrate has to be mixed very slowly with the sugar solution. "The thing is highly explosive." Abdul admits that many of his friends have suffered severe burns or lost fingers. He shrugs his shoulders: "There is a local saying in Gaza: He who cooks poison has to also try it."

'If It Hits a Child, naturally We are not Happy'

The production of the fuel may be delicate, but the really danger lies in the Israeli helicopters, Abdul says. "We know that we are easy prey." His thumb flashes a nervous Morse code with his flashlight onto the floor of the hut. "We are ready to die; that is the price of our freedom." He says that the Palestinians are left with no other choice but to fight the Israelis with weapons. "Either we resist, or they treat us like slaves." He has thought about who is hit by his rockets. "If we kill soldiers, then we are more than happy," he says. "If it hits a child, then naturally we are not happy."

The simple fact of the matter is that you can't aim a Qassam, he says. "And look at the Israelis. They have F-16s and Apache helicopters and can shoot with amazing accuracy. And they still kill our women and children." He reflects for a moment. "Children shouldn’t be killed in any war in this world," says Abdul, who has no children of his own.

Then he sends everyone outside. "This is the most dangerous moment. Just before the fuel is ready, the whole thing can explode." Over tea on the porch Abdul tells of his career as a rocket maker. A few hours of theory, then he and his friends did their apprenticeship with an experienced rocket builder. He doesn’t want to explicitly say it, but it seems as if he also trained abroad. "I was in Syria, Jordan and one other country," he says. In Iran? Abdul smiles slightly.

'My Mother Is Proud of Me'

The rocket fuel in the cauldron is ready: a thick yellow dough. Abdul carries a spoonful outside and put it in the fire on which the tea is brewing. A flame darts up, the nitrate-sugar mixture fizzes and bubbles as it burns off. It smells like fireworks, Abdul is pleased. The mixture is ready and is poured into a plastic tube, where it is to cool down. A fuse with a long wire is embedded in the mixture, with which the rocket can be ignited later. Once the fuel has set, the plastic tube will be cut away and the yellow fuel cylinder will be placed in the Qassam casing.

Now that the first Qassam rocket of the night is practically finished, Abdul has become quieter. "Today the clouds are protecting us from the Israeli drones."

The Islamic Jihad widows and orphans fund won't need to be used for his bereaved relatives. His mother, who worries so much about him, will be glad tomorrow morning when her son wakes up in his bed. "On the one hand, she is proud of me," he says. "But, at the end of the day, she is still a mother."

* Name changed