The most powerful attack by Hamas in decades against Israel recently has partially revealed the strength of this force as the conflict escalates in the Middle East “hot spot”
On October 7th, Hamas forces carried out the largest attack on Israel in recent years. Thousands of rockets from Hamas were launched from the Gaza Strip, while mobile attack groups conducted a ground breakthrough to enter the area controlled by Israel.
These events demonstrate that Hamas possesses a relatively significant military potential and can exert pressure on the Israel Defense Forces. This is noteworthy when the military wing of Hamas is built under severely restricted conditions and is frequently under threat.
Organizational structure of Hamas
The Hamas movement (“Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya” – “Islamic Resistance Movement”) was founded in late 1987. Hamas declares that the organization’s goal is to destroy Israel and establish an Arab state throughout the entire territory of the former Palestinian mandate. Unlike other Palestinian organizations and movements, Hamas pursues a hardline stance in both political and military struggles.
Initially, Hamas did not clearly divided into military, political and ideological wings. A prominent military wing of Hamas only emerged in the early 1990s. This force is referred to as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Since then, this brigade has carried out numerous attacks targeting Israel.
In the context of economic blockade by Israel, the people in the Palestinian territories and various Palestinian organizations have to rely on support and supplies from external sources.
Some countries have provided not only humanitarian aid but also weapons and ammunition to the Hamas movement and the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Some aid is sent in the form of finished products, while others are transported in individual components. Furthermore, channels have been established to transport raw materials and supplies for the domestic production activities of the Palestinian people.
Despite all limitations and difficulties, the military wing of Hamas continues to maintain a relatively large number of units and is also striving to improve domestic equipment. Recent events have demonstrated that Hamas has accumulated significant military potential and has executed strong strikes against Israel. At the same time, these battles have inflicted serious damage to the reputation of the Israeli military and intelligence agencies.
Combat units of Hamas
For various reasons, the military wing of Hamas has, until now, remained secretive and has not disclosed much information about its forces. However, some data has leaked beyond the control of Hamas and Palestine. Additionally, foreign intelligence agencies also provide information about the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
According to the statistics from the Military Balance, Hamas’ combat brigades consist of approximately 15,000-20,000 individuals. Other studies estimate this figure to be around 30,000-40,000 people.
In addition to regular forces, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades also have reserve forces, numbering in the tens of thousands. Moreover, recruiting new members into the forces is often not very challenging.
Foreign intelligence indicates that the organizational structure of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades does not exceed the level of companies and battalions. In total, they have 27-30 battalions and around 100 companies. There is also information suggesting that they have specialized support units in terms of technology, logistics, and more.
Until recently, leaked sources have revealed that Hamas combat brigades primarily consist of ground forces and have limited capabilities.
However, recent events indicate that Hamas has established and deployed units within other forces, such as airborne assault units or marines forces. Palestine has never had an official air force, but now, some operations are being carried out using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Military capabilities of Hamas
According to Topwar, despite the addition of some units, the majority of Hamas’s combat forces are infantry. This force is equipped with various types of small arms, with the most common being Soviet-era weapon systems, but also includes other weaponry. Handheld anti-tank weapons are also widely used by Hamas forces and are considered as a versatile weapon.
Hamas also employs a number of anti-tank missile systems. These are primarily products from Iran or items from other countries that have somehow been brought into Palestine. Additionally, military air defense systems are also deployed, based on affordable MANPADS (Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems), primarily of Soviet origin.
The Mutabar-1 systems with unguided anti-aircraft missiles have been utilized by Hamas.
Due to Israeli obstructions and a lack of resources and combat capabilities, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades do not have armored vehicles. The armored vehicles captured by Hamas forces are often destroyed on the spot or displayed for the Palestinian people to boost morale.
Due to the lack of armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, the transportation of troops and fire support for infantry is carried out using commercial vehicles. At local workshops, mounted machine gun vehicles have been assembled. Various types of weapons can also be used on the same vehicle. Motorcycles are employed as light transport vehicles.
The engineering units of the brigade have employed both cars and motorcycles for their advances. They traversed barriers in the Israel-Gaza border region, utilizing available equipment to accomplish their missions without undergoing any specific training.
In recent attacks, Hamas forces have employed an entirely new vehicle to enhance mobility.
Hamas fighters have approached some of Israel’s targets using paragliders. Single and two-seater commercial airplanes have also been utilized. These vehicles are used to penetrate Israel’s air defenses. Motorboats are also employed as landing craft.
Social media videos show that Hamas fighters have employed motorized paragliders to effectively infiltrate areas under Israeli control.
The radar reflectance cross-section of motorized paragliders is very small, and their slow speed and low altitude make them difficult to detect by radar. Israel typically uses infrared systems to detect and alert low-altitude targets, but this time, the motorized paragliders of Hamas fighters successfully infiltrated, largely due to Israel’s agile combat readiness.
For reconnaissance and aerial attack operations, the military wing of Hamas has employed small drones. These UAVs are sourced from the commercial market or assembled from readily available components.
The video capturing Hamas UAV dropping ammunition on an Israeli tank and a border post has been widely circulated. In both cases, Hamas UAVs approached the targets unhindered, carried out the attack, and then left.
Hamas forces are reported to also use suicide UAVs in their attacks. Drones with warheads are believed to be manufactured with the support of foreign entities.
According to Defense Blog, members of Hamas have drawn lessons from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and are using UAVs to target Israel’s main battle tanks, including the Merkava, one of the best-protected main battle tanks in the world.
In addition to attacking Israel’s tanks, small-sized UAVs are also used to target Israeli soldiers. Social media videos show small UAVs hovering above Israeli soldiers and dropping grenades on them, but Israel has very little reaction.
The primary offensive weapon of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which has caused significant damage to Israel over the years, is rocket artillery. Hamas employs various types of unguided rockets. Underground workshops of Hamas have produced several such rockets with different calibers and characteristics.
The quantity and quality of self-produced rockets have gradually improved over time. Additionally, rocket launchers have also been developed. These launchers were utilized in a recent Hamas attack.
How does Hamas build its forces?
Last weekend, Hamas launched an attack from the Gaza Strip, a coastal land strip spanning 360km2, bordered by Israel on two sides and Egypt on one side. This is an economically underdeveloped area with a dense population and limited resources.
Gaza has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 17 years, with Hamas in control, leading to Israel and Egypt imposing a strict blockade on this territory. Israel also enforces an air and sea blockade and conducts surveillance operations in Gaza.
This raises the question: How does Hamas accumulate such a vast weapon, enabling the group to carry out coordinated attacks on Israel that have resulted in over 1,200 casualties and thousands more injured, all while continuing rocket launches?
According to CNN, experts have identified several factors supporting Hamas in the process of building its forces.
The role of Iran?
Hamas obtains weapons through local trade or production and receives some military support from Iran, according to a report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Although the Israeli and U.S. governments have not directly identified any role of Iran in Hamas’s recent attacks last weekend, experts believe that Iran has long been a primary military supporter of Hamas, smuggling weapons into the region through secret border-crossing tunnels or boats evading the blockade in the Mediterranean.
“Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure remains extensive, while the infrastructure of Israel and Egypt often experiences degradation”, according to Bilal Saab, a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington.
“Hamas has received weapons from Iran smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels. These weapons often include long-range systems”, stated Daniel Byman, an expert at the Cross-Border Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“Iran also transports advanced ballistic missiles to Hamas by sea, along with components for manufacturing in Gaza”, said Charles Lister, a researcher at MEI.
Furthermore, analysts believe that Iran could also be an adviser to Hamas.
“Iran also helps Hamas domestically produce weapons, allowing Hamas to create its own armory” noted expert Byman.
A senior official of Hamas in Lebanon provided detailed information about Hamas’ weapons production activities in an interview with RTArabic, a Arabic news channel of Russian Today, on October 8th.
“We have local factories that produce everything, including missiles with ranges of 250km, 160km, 80km, and 10km. We have factories producing artillery and mortar shells. We have factories producing Kalashnikovs (assault rifles) and ammunition for these types of guns. We are producing ammunition with the permission of the Russians. We are building facilities in Gaza”, stated Ali Baraka, a Hamas official.
Iran has denied any involvement in Hamas’s recent attacks on Israel. The spokesperson for the Iranian mission at the United Nations stated that Iran supports the actions of Hamas but does not direct them.
For larger equipment, MEI expert Lister noted that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a wing of the Iranian military directly responsible to the country’s supreme leadership, has been training weapons for Hamas engineers for nearly two decades.
“For years, access to more advanced systems has provided Hamas engineers with the necessary knowledge to significantly enhance domestic production capabilities”, revealed expert Lister.
Additionally, according to Mr. Lister, Iran continually updates training programs for Hamas weapon manufacturers.
“Hamas rocket and missile engineers are part of Iran’s regional network, so regular training and exchanges in Iran are part of Iran’s efforts to professionalize their forces across the region” , said expert Lister.
However, Hamas also seeks ways to supplement the material source for the types of improvised weapons.
Gaza lacks heavy industry to support the production of weapons like other places around the world. According to the CIA report, the main industries in Gaza are textiles, food processing, and furniture.
However, one of the main export items in Gaza is scrap metal, a type of iron that can provide raw materials for manufacturing weapons right within the tunnel network beneath this area. In many cases, this metal is found in intense conflicts in Gaza, according to expert Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib.
“When the infrastructure in Gaza is destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, what remains, including metal sheets and pipes, steel rods, and electrical wires, is taken to the weapon production workshops of Hamas, where they are fashioned into rocket casings or other explosive devices”, said expert Alkhatib.
Additionally, according to Mr. Alkhatib, the recycling of unexploded Israeli ordnance for use as explosive material and other components has also contributed to Hamas’ weapons stockpile
“The activities of the Israel Defense Forces have indirectly provided Hamas with materials that are closely monitored or completely banned in Gaza”, added expert Alkhatib.
In the recent attacks over the weekend, Hamas’ primary weapons were still rockets, but they were no longer simple projectiles, which were previously called “flying pipes”. At least, they were equipped with multiple launchers similar to standard systems.
In the latest video released by Hamas, a large number of light-class rocket launch systems appeared. Although they may not visually compare to the rocket launchers used in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, this time, their reliability and stability far surpass what simple rockets could achieve in the past.
Additionally, there have been advancements in other types of weaponry. For instance, Hamas employs an upgraded RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher to target Israeli tanks with dual-explosive warheads, offering more effective countermeasures against reactive armor. Its armor-penetrating depth also ensures the capability to penetrate through multiple layers, especially on the sides and rear of the vehicle.
Supported by enhanced weaponry and more refined tactical training, the armed forces of Hamas have achieved surprising results in the initial stages of the conflict.
Of course, all of the above doesn’t happen overnight.
According to Aaron Pilkington, a U.S. Air Force analyst specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver, to fire thousands of rockets in a short period, as seen in the weekend raid, Hamas undoubtedly built up its own weapons stockpile. This includes both imported and domestically produced weapons over an extended period.
Baraka, a Hamas official in Lebanon, acknowledged that this group of fighters took two years to prepare for the attack on Israel last weekend.
“Hamas allies have supported us with weapons and finances. First and foremost, Iran has provided us with both financial support and weapons”, revealed Mr. Baraka.
Analysts also acknowledge that the scale and scope of Hamas attacks on Israel have caught the intelligence agencies of Israel and other countries off guard.
“Firing a series of rockets is not overly complex. But what’s surprising is how they can build stockpiles, move, deploy, and launch thousands of rockets while evading the intelligence of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It’s hard to comprehend how Palestinian fighters could accomplish this without guidance”, said expert Pilkington
Source: Topwar, CNN, BI, Defense Blog