Israel Pulse

Are Hamas drones really a threat to Israel?

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Article Summary
Hamas is highly motivated to develop its drone capabilities, according to an urgent report by Israel's state comptroller.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published a special report Nov. 14 on Israel's national preparedness against the drone threat. The comptroller cited the urgency of the threat in his decision to publish now rather than waiting to release the analysis as part of his annual report. Previous assessments, like that of the Hamas terror tunnels, he said, have sometimes lagged behind the rapid development of severe threats, and there is no time to waste.

The comptroller’s report touches on the threat of drones not only from a security perspective, but also from a criminal perspective. He emphasized that terror organizations have long known the advantages of drones, and they intend to expand their use significantly. That’s the reason that the comptroller repeatedly recalls the threat of the Hamas Gaza tunnels, which weren’t addressed appropriately by the security establishment before the Protective Edge operation of summer 2014.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is prevalent among Hezbollah, the Islamic State as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. In February 2017, for example, the Israeli air force intercepted a UAV that flew from Gaza to the Mediterranean Sea, likely as a test by Hamas' military wing. Half a year earlier, an Israeli fighter jet fired a missile at a Hamas drone and shot it down. In another incident in June 2015, a Hamas drone crashed in an open field in Israel.

During Operation Protective Edge, the air force intercepted a drone that took off from Gaza and reached the beaches of Ashdod. A video later posted by Hamas' military wing claimed that another drone succeeded in bringing photos from the area of Israeli army headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Hamas offered additional information: The name of the aircraft was “Ababil,” the same as the Iranian-developed drone that was further developed and used by Hezbollah. The name was taken from a Quran passage about birds that can kill people by throwing small stones at them. Hamas even explained that the organization’s engineers had succeeded in creating three models of UAVs: an A1A for observational missions, an A1B for offensive missions and an A1C for suicide missions. This information seemed to have been provided to bolster the morale of Gaza residents during Operation Protective Edge, and it’s unknown whether Hamas is truly capable of reaching Tel Aviv with a drone. Hamas’ motivation to create a system of unmanned craft for operational and intelligence purposes has only grown stronger since then, and several drones have been launched from Gaza. Those that penetrated Israeli air space were intercepted, but the attempts attest to Hamas' determination.

In the past, Israel had judged that Hamas' UAV development was intended mainly for morale-boosting purposes. But the security establishment now understands that Hamas is aiming much higher.

Against Israel's advanced fighter jets, Hamas’ UAVs look like weapons from a past century, but that was the Israeli view of the Qassam rockets at first. When Hamas started developing the Qassam rocket, it was mocked in Israel. Hamas’ military commander Mohammed al-Deif was also skeptical, and only after a test across from the Gaza shore in August 2001 did he decide to greenlight the rocket’s development. The rest is history.

The Qassam rocket became a useful weapon of deterrence against Israel. A security source at the Palestinian Authority told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the drone tests in the Gaza Strip by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have become routine. According to him, most of the tests take place near the beach of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip as well as in the center of Gaza, in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp area.

“There is no chance of hiding these tests, and in my opinion Hamas isn’t trying to hide them,” the source said. According to him, Deif never gave up his dream to create an advanced intelligence-collection unit also capable of bombing operations, as well as the desire to continue developing an operational “airborne fleet” for intelligence and offensive purposes.

The Qassam’s main developers, Adnan al-Ghoul and Nidal Farhat, were eliminated by Israel only after the rocket’s prototype was completed and it was no longer possible to stop its development.

The state comptroller’s special report warns against belittling the technological abilities of the Gazan drones. While they may seem easy to shoot down, they pose a significant security threat. Israel must prepare to face it immediately, before it’s too late. The prime minister’s office had a brief response: “The problem of drones is known and is being addressed.”

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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