Hamas anti-tank attack shows depth of ‘powerful’ arsenal facing Israel

JERUSALEM – Early in Israel’s invasion of Gaza, an anti-tank missile fired by Palestinian militants hit an armored personnel carrier, killing – by burns, concussions, shrapnel – at least nine Israeli soldiers.

That October 31 attack, on Gaza’s sandy northern periphery, represented the single largest Israeli casualty of the ground war. It also showed the development and expansion of Hamas’ firepower.

Where once Israeli forces faced stones and Molotov cocktails thrown by Palestinians, they now confront weapons such as laser-guided missiles and anti-tank munitions. Hamas has “armed itself to the teeth,” a military analyst said.

The Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, are now inside Gaza City, fighting Hamas above and below ground — among civilians, around hospitals, schools and mosques — in areas the IDF says are honeycombed with tunnels.

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In such close quarters, Hamas fighters have displayed some of their upgraded arsenal: a staggering number of shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles, military experts say. Many of the weapons have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels, land crossings and the sea over the past decade, from the spillover of wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan, and also manufactured by Iran and even North Korea.

Variations of these weapons have also been assembled with increasing sophistication inside Gaza in underground factories.

Analysts say Israel has closely monitored the types of weapons Hamas possesses: modern sniper rifles, paragliders, RPGs, “magnetic bombs,” suicide attack drones, mini-submarines, land mines, anti-tank missiles and long-range rockets that can now hit as far as far north as Haifa near the border with Lebanon and as far south as Eilat on the Red Sea, though still without great accuracy.

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Hamas and its fighters – an estimated strength of 30,000 or more – are so fully armed and well trained that its brigades, designated as terrorist organizations by the US, resemble “state armies”, said Michael Milshtein, former head of the Palestinian territory. Department in the IDF and senior analyst at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

As he watched the first two weeks of the ground invasion unfold, Milshtein said, “There’s actually nothing new or surprising about the weapons themselves. The biggest surprise is the quantity.”

Milshtein said Israel is facing “a much more powerful Hamas”.

Although there have been calls for more “humanitarian pauses” from the United States – and demands for a complete ceasefire from regional powers – Israel shows no signs of stopping its offensive, as its tanks surrounded several hospitals in northern Gaza on Friday, and the medical facilities housing displaced people came under fire.

Israel’s Army Radio said tanks surrounded several hospitals and required them to be evacuated, which doctors have said would be impossible to do safely.

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Avi Melamed, former Israeli intelligence official and founder of the Inside the Middle East Institute, said Israel will face “very challenging” conditions. “It’s a massively armed enemy,” he said, “not a bunch of little kids running around with guns.”

The deployment of large numbers of anti-tank units by Hamas is of particular concern to Israeli forces – so much so that the IDF appears to be focusing its intelligence on finding targets for air and ground forces to wipe them out.

Every few days, the IDF media office releases information about its troops targeting and killing Hamas anti-tank commanders. Hamas does not confirm deaths among its operatives, making the Israeli claims often impossible to independently verify.

Yet it is already clear that this war in Gaza – compared to the battles of 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021 – is the deadliest.

Israeli bombing and ground attacks have killed more than 11,000 people, many of them women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. On October 7, the Hamas attack on farming communities, military bases and a rave concert along the Gaza border left at least 1,200 Israelis dead and 240 others taken hostage.

So far in the ground invasion, 41 IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza, Israel’s military says.

In a May 2021 war, primarily between Hamas and Israel, Hamas’ anti-tank missile teams were able to launch strikes that killed military personnel and civilians — proving to be more effective than drone strikes, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. a think tank in Washington.

“Hamas drones and rockets were intercepted,” he said. “Their unmanned midget submarines were stopped. Cross-border tunnel operators were detected.” But “their anti-tank forces broke through and landed blows,” he said.

The anti-tank systems deployed by Hamas include the Bulsae-2, a North Korean copy of the Soviet-era Fagot; RPG-7, also originally Russian; as well as a North Korean version called the F-7, military analysts said.

Other systems previously seen in Hamas videos include the Russian-style Kornet and Konkurs, as well as the Iranian Raad, which is a version of the Soviet Malyutka.

“Together, this cocktail of foreign weapons can complicate even the most high-tech armies in an urban combat scenario,” Taleblu said.

He added: “Expect more, not less, of an emphasis on anti-tank weapons and anti-tank warfare from Hamas as the IDF moves further into Gaza.”

Over the past decade, many of the anti-tank weapons have been smuggled into Gaza, through the tunnels from Egypt’s Sinai desert into the Gaza Strip and via trucks crossing the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, the analysts said.

Yehoshua Kalisky, a weapons expert and senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the weapons can be disassembled and the individual parts hidden in food and aid shipments.

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Among the anti-tank weapons that Hamas possesses are some produced inside the Strip, such as the Tandem 85 warhead, said Amael Kotlarski, senior analyst and weapons expert at the defense intelligence firm Janes. These kinds of projectiles use two charges to punch through modern armored vehicles. They are Iran’s signature weapon supplied to allied militants, such as Hamas, and were used to devastating effect against US troops in Iraq.

Hamas’s propaganda arm has released several edited images of militants firing rockets and missiles at Israeli vehicles. Although the videos may show fiery explosions, it is sometimes unclear whether the impacts destroyed or damaged vehicles.

Israel has developed a defense against these weapons called the Trophy active protection system, said Ryan Brobst of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It works by using radar to track incoming munitions and then intercept them with its own defensive projectiles. It has largely been a success. But — as with missile barrages against Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses — the Trophy system can be defeated by overwhelming it with a large number of projectiles or projectiles fired at close range, Brobst said.

In particular, Brobst said the US Army received Trophy systems for its Abrams tanks in 2019 and deployed them to Europe.

Kalisky, the Israeli analyst, said that in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, Israel in Sinai needed three divisions to defeat the Egyptian army in six days. Now the IDF has been using the same force for almost a month with very different results in Gaza.

“This is a different kind of war. It’s a very difficult war,” he said. “They’re equipped.”

Sudilovsky reported from Jerusalem and Nakashima and Horton of Washington. Hazem Balousha in Cairo contributed to this report.

The Israel-Gaza War

Israeli tanks, amid explosions and falling shells, surrounded crowded hospitals in Gaza City on Friday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is not “seeking to occupy Gaza,” marking a shift in tone from his earlier comments that raised red flags in the Biden administration. Understand what is behind the Israel-Gaza war.

hostages: Officials say Hamas militants abducted around 239 hostages in a highly organized attack. Four hostages have been released – two Americans and two Israelis – as families cling to hope. A freed Israeli hostage told of the “spider web” of Gaza tunnels she was held in.

Humanitarian aid: The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said it has received over 370 trucks of food, medicine and water in the Gaza Strip through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. But, the PRCS said, there has not yet been permission to bring in fuel to run the enclave’s hospitals, water pumps, taxis and more.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has a complicated history, and its rulers have long been at odds with the Palestinian Authority, the US-backed government of West Bank. Here is a timeline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.