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Hamas growing in military stature, say analysts

An expert in Hamas affairs says its use of tunnels to launch incursions, ability to repulse commando raids and use of powerful Gaza manufactured rockets are signs of a growing military maturity
A Palestinian fighter of Hamas' armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, trains in Gaza in 2007 (AFP)

GAZA CITY - The strength projected by Hamas is based on its military potential of the movement - its capacity to employ force against the enemy. Both engineers and fighters from Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have died over the years so the group could achieve what this military capacity is today.

It has been a painful process of trial and error, analysts say. When Hamas was established in 1987, it simply planned to copy Israel’s iconic sub-machine gun, the Uzi. Now it has M-75 missiles which with a range of about 80 kilometers that can reach further than Tel Aviv.

Hamas’ ability to repulse two Israeli special-forces beach landings with air cover in the last week has not gone unnoticed internationally. Hamas also immobilized Israeli tanks and launched tunnel incursions, raising questions as to what capacity the military wing has developed since its defeat in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

“The wars of 2008-9 and 2012 matured Hamas. Now we see the introduction of newer rockets”, said Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, an expert in Hamas affairs. “Its military capacity has improved in both quality and quantity," he told MEE.

Madhoun says the progress draws from painful experiences in Operation Cast Lead. For instance, Qassam has introduced new anti-tank missiles able to hit tanks from a further distance, such as the Russian Tandem warhead, which can penetrate up to 900mm of armour. This is unlike 2008 where P7 and RPG-7 missiles failed from a shorter distance.

Although there is no information on how many Tandem warheads Hamas has, Madhoun says there are yet further weapons Hamas is keeping as a “surprise” for ground invasions on Gaza.

“Inter-city tunnels are another factor providing Hamas with defensive tactics and ability to surprise Israel”, he adds.  Israel’s military said on Thursday that it had fought back an incursion by Hamas under a heavily fortified border near Sufa kibbutz – but Qassam Brigades said it had successfully completed a “mission” during the underground raid.

Military mastermind

Ahmed Jabari, a chief commander of the Qassam Brigades who was assassinated in an Israeli air strike in November 2012, is widely seen as responsible for planning a domestic missile manufacturing capability that has developed in defiance of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the strip. In Jabari's honour, Hamas introduced two new missiles, the J80 and J160.

The group also saw improvements in training and specialisation into different divisions, including explosive, engineering, rocket launching, snipers, naval, air defense and manufacturing units, according to analysts.

Since 1987, when Hamas first emerged, the group's rocket variety and range - both closely guarded secrets - have steadily improved.

Manufacturing by the Hamas military is an evolving process which, according to Al-Madhoun, has developed as a result of with time spent and determination within the military wing.

In comparison with 2008 and 2012, when experts in Gaza say that Israel took Hamas by surprise, Hamas’ response in the current conflict suggests it is more aware of its strengths and weaknesses.

The patterns of rocket fire from Gaza seem consistent over the last 10 days of war, and there are estimates that Hamas’ military is still only using less than 20% of its military weapon capacity, Madhoun said.

Indeed, Madhoun says other divisions have also not used their full military capacity yet, predicting months more of rocket fire-power. 

“There are also more human resources not yet used or exhausted” he says, indicating that the response so far has concentrated on rocket attacks and the number of rockets is “neither increasing, nor decreasing”.

“I believe that - in general - the Gaza resistance is not yet moving at full speed," he told MEE

During the past 10 days, Israel strikes have killed 230 Palestinians and injured 1,700 Palestinians, the vast majority of them being civilians, mainly children and women according to the United Nations. 

One Qassam navy commander Mohammed Shaban was killed— but Madhoun says Shaban was not a leader but a field-operative and that a few hundred more remain in the navy unit. In the past, Qassam Brigades members were killed either on the way to launch rockets, or on the way back.

Potential Israeli plans for a ground invasion in the coming days have been met with defiant statements from the the Qassam Brigade, which have said they favor this as the “only option to liberate our Palestinian prisoners”.

In 2003, Hamas leaders estimated the number of troops in the Qassam Brigade’s ranks at around 20,000. However, some observers believe it is closer to 40,000.

One reason for this is because after Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006, the limit on military recruitment was extended by the Hamas-led government. The group is also aligned with other factions that each have a few thousand fighters.  

Despite its monitoring technologies, Israel has little idea of the exact size of Qassam’s arsenal. “This [arsenal] is mostly manufactured locally - but yes, Hamas has also benefited from the chaos in Libya, which has seen missiles brought in”.

An analyst from Jane's Intelligence- a London-based consultancy- told Reuters this week that in this offensive the brigade has unveiled new rockets and launchers that they made themselves – so the fighters are less dependent on smuggled weapons.

The 'Ababeel' drone, Hamas' first bomb-carrying unmanned aerial vehicle (AFP/FP PHOTO/HO/IZZ AL-DIN AL-QASSAM BRIGADES)

While Iran has traditionally been seen as the main patron for Qassam’s military capacity, Madhoun says that the relationship has suffered lately after Hamas did not follow Tehran and back President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

Another sign of Hamas’ improving military capacity is in its drone technology. On Monday, the Israeli military announced it had shot down a done which Hamas has named the Ababeel, describing it as its first bomb-carrying unmanned aerial vehicle.

Wary of invasion

Madhoun says that the use of Russian anti-tank guided missile the Kornet four times by Hamas and Islamic Jihad has made Israel think twice before launching a ground invasion that would lead to multiple casualties among Israeli troops.

He adds that it would be wrong to underestimate Hamas’ capacity to face Israel’s troops.

“One useful tactic for Hamas is capturing Israeli soldiers and it has proved itself more than capable of doing this”, he adds.

If it launches a ground invasion, Israel is likely to face not only Hamas’ renewed military strength and camouflage capabilities, but also the potential for mass troop casualties and international criticism of its “scorched-earth” tactics, said Madhoun.

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