How Hamas grew and upgraded its weapons arsenal to strike Israel

Despite intense surveillance and tight restrictions, the terror group has produced and procured thousands of long-range rockets and other arms

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In this fourth major round of violence between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, the terror group has fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel, some hitting deeper in Israeli territory and with greater accuracy than ever before.

The unprecedented barrages reaching as far north as the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, coupled with drone launches and even an attempted submarine attack, have put on dramatic display a homegrown arsenal that has only expanded despite the 14-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the coastal strip.

Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

“The magnitude of (Hamas) bombing is much bigger and the precision is much better in this conflict,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “It’s shocking what they’ve been able to do under siege.”

A rocket is launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza City, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Here’s a look at how, despite intense surveillance and tight restrictions, Hamas managed to amass its cache.

From crude bombs to long-range rockets

Since the founding of Hamas in 1987, the group’s secretive armed wing — which operates alongside a more visible political organization — evolved from a small militia into what Israel describes as a “semi-organized military.”

In its early days, the group carried out deadly shootings and kidnappings of Israelis. It killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which erupted in late 2000.

As violence spread, the terror group started producing rudimentary “Qassam” rockets. Powered partly by molten sugar, the projectiles reached just a few kilometers (miles), flew wildly, and caused little damage, often landing inside Gaza.

After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas assembled a secret supply line from longtime patrons Iran and Syria, according to Israel’s military. Longer-range rockets, powerful explosives, metal, and machinery flooded Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. Experts say the rockets were shipped to Sudan, trucked across Egypt’s vast desert, and smuggled through a warren of narrow tunnels beneath the Sinai Peninsula.

In 2007, when Hamas terrorists pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza and took over governing the coastal strip in a violent coup, Israel and Egypt imposed their tight blockade.

Damage to homes in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva which were hit by rockets from Gaza on May 13, 2021. (Flash90)

According to the Israeli military, the smuggling continued, gaining steam after Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist leader, and Hamas ally, was elected president of Egypt in 2012 before being overthrown by the Egyptian army.

Gaza terrorists stocked up on foreign-made rockets with enhanced ranges, like Katyushas and the Iranian-supplied Fajr-5, which were used during the 2008 and 2012 wars with Israel.

A homegrown industry

After Morsi’s overthrow, Egypt cracked down on and shut hundreds of smuggling tunnels. In response, Gaza’s local weapons industry picked up.

“The Iranian narrative is that they kick-started all the missile production in Gaza and gave them the technical and knowledge base, but now the Palestinians are self-sufficient, said Fabian Hinz, an independent security analyst focusing on missiles in the Middle East. “Today, most of the rockets we’re seeing are domestically built, often with creative techniques.”

In a September documentary aired by the Al-Jazeera satellite news network, rare footage showed Hamas terrorists reassembling Iranian rockets with ranges of up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) and warheads packed with 175 kilograms (385 pounds) of explosives. Hamas terrorists opened unexploded Israeli missiles from previous strikes to extract explosive materials. They even salvaged old water pipes to repurpose as missile bodies.

To produce rockets, Hamas chemists and engineers mix propellant from fertilizer, oxidizer, and other ingredients in makeshift factories. Key contraband is still believed to be smuggled into Gaza in a handful of tunnels that remain in operation.

Hamas has publicly praised Iran for its assistance, which experts say now primarily takes the form of blueprints, engineering know-how, motor tests, and other technical expertise. The State Department reports that Iran provides $100 million a year to Palestinian terror groups.

Arsenal on display

The Israeli military estimates that before the current round of fighting, Hamas had an arsenal of 7,000 rockets of varying ranges that can cover nearly all of Israel, as well as 300 anti-tank and 100 anti-aircraft missiles. It also has acquired dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles and has an army of some 30,000 terrorists, including 400 naval commandos.

In this latest war, Hamas has unveiled new weapons like attack drones, unmanned submarine drones dispatched into the sea and an unguided rocket called “Ayyash” with a 250-kilometer (155-mile) range. Israel claims those new systems have been thwarted or failed to make direct strikes.

The Israeli military says Operation Guardian of the Walls has dealt a tough blow to Hamas’ weapons research, storage, and production facilities. But Israeli officials acknowledge they have been unable to halt the constant barrages of rocket fire.

Unlike guided missiles, the rockets are imprecise and the vast majority have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. But by continuing to frustrate Israel’s superior firepower, Hamas may have made its main point.

“Hamas is not aiming for the military destruction of Israel. Ultimately, the rockets are meant to build leverage and rewrite the rules of the game,” Hinz said. “It’s psychological.”

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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