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How Did Hamas Acquire Advanced Rockets?
Iran agents, Bedouin smugglers, shifting routes critical to dramatic arms upgrade
When Hamas opened its surprise attack on Israel just before dawn last Saturday, it unleashed sustained salvos of some 200 rockets and missiles each at Israeli cities and towns. By mid-morning, the militants had fired a total of some 2,500 projectiles that quickly overwhelmed Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.
At the same time, Hamas also launched scores of armed drones that dropped powerful explosives on Israeli tanks and troops guarding the Gaza border while hundreds of its fighters smashed through the fortified border on foot and others landed on Israeli beaches in small boats and dropped from the air in paragliders.
As Israelis ponder how the Mossad, Shin Bet and Aman military intelligence missed Hamas’ preparations for its wide-ranging assault, another question is: How did Israel fail to prevent Hamas’ from amassing an unprecedented stockpile of weapons—and some advanced ones at that?
Long Time Coming
It’s no secret how Hamas, under an Israeli military blockade since 2007, has generally managed to stock its arsenals with such lethal military hardware. According to numerous independent analysts and regional experts, Iran, wearing the mantle of anti-Israel leadership in the Muslim world, has been providing Hamas with millions of dollars in funding, weapons and missile training since they first established ties in the 1980s.
In 2014, Gen. Ahmad Hosseini, then the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps missile force, acknowledged the key role Tehran played in developing Hamas’ missile program. Years earlier, he recounted, Hamas engineers had been “armed and trained by Hezbollah (Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon). . . Some of them even came to Iran for training.” Hosseini added that the father of Iran’s own missile force, the late Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, “armed them and guided them.”
Initially, Iran’s Quds Force, together with Hezbollah, instructed Hamas engineers in making rockets from common materials like pipes, fertilizer and sugar, said Ido Levy, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, in a 2021 paper. This, he wrote, enabled Hamas to begin domestic production of its short-range Qassam rocket, which the militants fired at Israeli towns just north of the Gaza Strip.
Later, Iran began smuggling the components of its own home-manufactured Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 ballistic missiles, with ranges of 27 miles and 47 miles respectively, into Gaza by hiding them aboard ships with cargoes bound for European ports on the Mediterranean.
According to Fabian Hinz, an expert on Middle East missile proliferation with the London-based International Institute for Strategic studies, the ships disembarked from Iranian ports, sailed around the Arabian peninsula and made their way up the Red Sea to Port Sudan, where the missile components were offloaded to warehouses operated by Iran’s Quds Forces with the approval of Sudan’s Islamist President Omar al-Bashir,
While the Iranian cargo vessels continued through the Suez Canal to their destinations, Iranian agents in Sudan moved the missile components overland through Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula, where nomadic Bedouin tribesmen working with Hamas smuggled them into Gaza through tunnels dug under the Gaza-Egyptian border. Iranian-trained Hamas engineers then reassembled the parts into operable missiles, which were fired at the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Tel Aviv farther up the Mediterranean coast when hostilities with Israel erupted in 2012.
Iran’s relations with Hamas soured in the wake of the 2011 civil war in Syria, when Tehran supported Syrian leader Bashar al Assad while Hamas backed the Sunni Muslim rebels. Hamas also sided with Saudi Arabia in its war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels Yemen.
But as the door for Iranian missile assistance closed, another opened with the outbreak of Libya’s civil war in 2011 and the rebels’ looting of the government’s armories. In the ensuing years, Israeli intelligence sources say, Hamas worked with Libyan arms dealers to smuggle missiles into Gaza. In June 2012, Egyptian security forces seized 138 Soviet-made Grad rockets brought in from Libya and headed for Gaza.
In 2014, Sudan’s Bashir, facing his country’s economic collapse, shut down the Sudanese smuggling channel and severed relations with Iran in hopes of winning financial aid from Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional archrival. In response, Iran, together with Hezbollah, opened up another maritime smuggling channel. Evading Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, the Washington Institute’s Levy notes that Hezbollah boats pushed floating palettes filled with missile components and missile manufacturing machinery into the sea off the Gaza coast, where they were retrieved by Palestinian fishermen.
In 2017, relations between Hamas and Iran improved significantly after Tehran, seizing upon the militant groups’ appointment of pro-Iranian leader Yahya al Sinwar, brokered a reconciliation between the Assad regime and Hamas. With Iran’s support back on track, Sinwar said Iran once again was Hamas’ “largest backer financially and militarily.”
Since then, Iranian officials also have highlighted their role in the modernization of both Hamas and Hezbollah’s rocket and missile forces.
“All the missiles you might see in Gaza and Lebanon were created with Iran’s support,” boasted Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace force, in 2021. “Today, the Palestinians fire rockets instead of throwing stones.”
“The magnitude of (Hamas) bombing is much bigger and the precision is much better in this conflict,” Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, told the Times of Israel. “It’s shocking what they’ve been able to do under siege.”
Iran has denied any involvement in the Hamas attack on Israel, but Israeli officials brushed off Tehran’s disclaimer.
Israeli intelligence officials maintain this renewed Iranian support has been reflected in the advances Hamas has made in its rocket and missile production in recent years. By manufacturing rockets and missiles based on Iranian designs, the Israelis say the Hamas arsenal now includes weapons that have longer ranger, deadlier warheads and improved accuracy. Thanks to Iranian support, these officials add, Hamas also has improved launchers that can fire sustained barrages of more than two dozen missiles per minute, overwhelming Israel's Iron Dome air defenses and causing greater damage and casualties.
In 2021, Israel estimated that Hamas had amassed as many as 15,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, Levy said. In the two years before the latest eruption of violence, it’s almost certain the size of the Hamas missile arsenal has grown.
Israel says Hamas fired some 3,000 rockets and missiles into Israel so far, while Israeli air strikes against Gaza have targeted what officials say are some of the group’s missile manufacturing facilities.
But while some analysts say Hamas is running out of such munitions, its leaders sound unbowed.
On Monday, Hamas threatened to execute Israeli civilian hostages for every Israeli strike that hits civilian targets in Gaza without warning.
"We declare that any targeting of our people in their homes without prior warning will be regrettably faced with the execution of one the hostages of civilians we are holding," Hamas spokesperson Abu Obaida said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said more than 100 people had been taken hostage by Hamas during the deadly cross-border incursion over the weekend.
Cohen warned Hamas against harming the hostages, saying, "This war crime will not be forgiven.”