How Hamas acquired its 10,000-rocket arsenal
On Sunday afternoon, in a moshav near Ashkelon, Eyal went out to the fields behind his father’s house. Rockets that Iron Dome does not shoot down – those reported to have landed in “open areas” – litter his father’s cotton fields and groves. A Thai worker led him to the site of a recent barrage, where the rusty hull of a rocket lay in the soil.
“I looked at it and couldn’t believe it,” Eyal said. “It looked like a sewage pipe with wings, the kind of thing that you can make in three hours in a metal workshop.”
He described tail wings affixed with a cheap spring, crude welding and what must have been a small warhead. “It looked like it would have to hit you straight in the back in order to kill you,” he said.
But Tuesday evening’s rocket attack in Rishon Lezion proved that there’s more to Hamas’s arsenal than “winged pipes.” In fact, that arsenal is a hodgepodge of 10,000 projectiles, ranging from “primitive tubes with a microwave computer” – according to aviation and airborne terror expert Hillel Avihai – to SA-7 surface-to-air missiles and Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets. Some were smuggled into Gaza, others created there. All told, they are the heart of the Palestinian territory’s offensive capacity.
Unlike a standard army, in which rockets and mortars provide support for the forward troops, Hamas’s doctrine, based on targeting civilians and protecting against an invading army, calls for the deployment of curved-trajectory weapons as a primary offensive tool, with foot-soldiers relegated to defensive tasks.
As a military tool, this doctrine is a failure: The thousands of Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigade foot-soldiers were not up to the task of halting or even significantly harming Israeli troops during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and the threat of rocket fire was insufficient to stop the army from invading. As a terror tool, however, Hamas’s curved-trajectory weapons remain devastatingly effective: normal life has been paralyzed throughout the ongoing operation; fear among civilians is widespread; and Hamas, through the strategic use of violence and the targeting of civilians, has pushed its agenda to the center of the international stage.
Israel and Hamas are still exchanging blows. Perhaps the near future will bring a ceasefire. Perhaps a tragic event will trigger a ground invasion. Either way, the manner in which Hamas acquired, built and maintains its rocket arsenal and the question of whether the flow can be stopped, the manufacture halted, is the central question in assessing the chances of securing a semblance of long-term quiet in the south.
The smuggler’s paradise
Hamas’s most deadly rockets begin the journey to Gaza in Iran. The Fajr-5, which has a 45-mile range and can carry a 200-pound warhead, is produced by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization. The 122-mm. Katyusha rocket, and the upgraded model, the Grad, are acquired for export and sent either to Lebanon, for Hezbollah, or Sudan – the first step on the way to Gaza.
According to a May 2011 report by the Shin Bet security agency, the rockets are concealed and sent by sea or otherwise to Sudan. From there they travel north, in truck convoys, to Egypt and into the Sinai Peninsula. “They travel through the deserts, the rockets hidden in containers,” said Yoni Fighel, a colonel in reserves in the Military Intelligence Corps and a research fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
“What’s the big deal?” said a different former intelligence officer. “You throw a few vegetables on top, pay a few bribes along the way and cross through Egypt.”
Despite the widening Shiite-Sunni rift in the Middle East, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – Sunni organizations both – accept Iran’s gifts of weapons so as to further their own interests, Fighel said; and Iran, keen to perpetuate the jihad against Israel and maintain a foothold in Palestinian society, is more than happy to oblige. But Hamas, unlike Islamic Jihad, is not Shiite-subordinate, as evidenced by its ties to Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.
The logistics of the weapons transfer, Fighel said, are handled jointly by Hamas and Iran, and were once the domain of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas operative famously found dead in a locked hotel room in Dubai in 2010.
The arms transports, according to the Shin Bet report, are conducted by “Bedouin residents of Sinai for whom smuggling is the primary source of income.” The route goes from the Sudan-Egypt border north through the length of Egypt and then east, across the Sinai, to the mouth of the tunnels near Rafah.
The hundreds of tunnels lining the border are corridors for cash, cars, people and explosives. “It’s like a smuggling duty-free,” said Hillel Avihai, the airborne and aviation terror expert and ICT fellow.
The Fajr-5, he said, which is 18 feet long, is cut into several parts on the western side of the border and reassembled in Gaza by experts who have either studied in Lebanon and Syria or were trained by professionals who entered Gaza through the tunnels.
The rest of the arsenal, the vast majority, is improvised. “The earliest Kassam [rockets] were made out of metal from stolen Israel Roadways signs, and powered by fertilizer,” said Avihai of the weapons behind the attacks that began in October 2001, a period during which gruesome suicide bombings were still Hamas’s primary weapon.
Yoram Cohen, the current head of the Shin Bet, argued in a 2009 paper that four developments brought about the rise of Hamas’s rocket arsenal: Israel pulled its troops out of the Philadelphi corridor; it withdrew its civilians from Gaza; it failed to smother Hezbollah’s rocket fire during 34 days of war in 2006; and, one year after that, Hamas beat Fatah in elections in Gaza, ousting it from power and seizing its military and intelligence assets and state resources.
The most significant factor is the withdrawal of troops and citizens. After the gates of Gaza were shut in August 2005, Hamas was left with no readily available targets. “Once the civilians were pulled away, they started to increase their range and their efforts,” Avihai said, noting that rocket fire was the only feasible way for the group to keep “the resistance” alive and remind Israel of its existence.
One recent homemade development, which surprised Israeli intelligence experts with its range, is the M-75 rocket of the type that fell in open areas south of Jerusalem on Friday evening and Tuesday afternoon.
The M-75, named after Ibrahim Makadmeh, a Hamas terrorist who was assassinated in March 2003 – he was the first to argue in favor of pitting Israel against the Palestinian Authority by unleashing waves of suicide attacks – is a prime example of both the ingenuity of Hamas and the cruel manner in which terror organizations use meager tools for maximal impact. It is, in essence, a 122-mm. rocket that, sources say, Hamas severed near the tail, lengthened, stuffed with additional gunpowder, and fixed with new tail wings.
The flight path of the improvised rockets is less predictable, and the warhead is often reduced in size, which makes it less lethal, but the goal is accomplished, said Avihai: “To set off an air-raid siren and spread panic.”